London (AsiaNews) - London is getting ready for the official start of the 30th Olympiad (27-July-12 August) amid gaffes, large-scale investments and non-sporting happenings, big and small. Set for 9 pm local time, the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium will be seen by a worldwide audience of four billion people. For the British capital, this is the third time as host of the world's foremost sporting event after 1908 and 1948. About 10,500 athletes are expected to take part in representation of 205 nations; an additional 4,200 will follow for the Paralympics. The mega gathering will unfold over 17 days (actually 19 considering that women's football began on Wednesday), include 302 events, in 26 disciplines on 36 sporting venues built for the occasion.
For the British economy, the Games will be a bonanza. But preparations for London 2012 have felt the bite of Britain's economic crisis. Costs have doubled to US$ 15 billion, raising fears of a repeat of what happened to Greece, where a deep financial crisis followed the Athens Games in 2004.
Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney and UK Prime Minister David Cameron exchanged barbs over the issue. In response to the American, who spoke of setbacks and "a few things that were disconcerting" in the security area, the British leader said, "Look at what we're capable of achieving as a nation, even in difficult times".
More generally and contrary to Pierre de Coubertin's original spirit that "the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part," professionalism and economic interests have prevailed, made worse by media, sponsors and investors, as competition is pushed to its limits for maximum results. Qatar for example is planning to invest 12 billion in the country.
Security costs have ballooned to US$ 850,000. Some 40,000 military and civilian personnel have been deployed in the various venues. Overall, more soldiers have been deployed in and around the UK on Olympic duty than in Afghanistan. The FBI has also sent in about a thousand agents with many more from other foreign secret services.
About 200,000 passes have been issued and 21,000 media professionals (journalists and photographers) will cover the Olympics using 16,500 telephone lines, 80,000 Internet connections and 1,800 wireless access points for a tsunami of images and comments. A total of 642,000 person hours will be spent to deliver the Games.
Still, even in the age of the Internet and multimedia, organisers have not avoided some egregious errors, which have already inspired the phlegmatic Brits to rename London 2012, the Gaffe Olympics.
The first one occurred on Wednesday before the women's football match between North Korea and Colombia (won by the Asian team 2-nil). North Korean players were presented on the stadium's giant screen side-by-side with the South Korean flag, a major blunder, since the two Koreas are still technically at war. The match itself began an hour later after the North Korean delegation protested. Organisers issued an apology the next day.
The Olympics website also sported its own slip-ups worthy of a Monty Python movie. A handful of Olympians born in the Soviet Union were listed as having been born Russia.
The entry for judo fighter Arsen Galstyan listed his place of birth as "Armenia (RUS)", whilst fellow Armenian, boxer David Ayrapetyan, was listed as having been born in "Baku (RUS)".
The London 2012 webmasters showed poor political savvy, if not outright geographic ignorance, in the entries of some athletes from the Caucasus.
Denis Tsargush, the site said, hailed from "Gudauta (RUS)," a city in Abkhazia, whilst Besik Kudukhov was born in "Yuzhnaya Osetia (RUS)," i.e. South Ossetia. Although both regions broke away from Georgia and have been recognised by Russia after a brief war with Georgia in 2008, they are still formally part of Georgia, which has already sent a letter of protest to the London Games' organisers.
Around the Olympic village, some sign also contain major bloopers, especially in Arabic. The vast and glitzy Westfield shopping centre displayed welcome signs in many languages but printed the Arabic ones back-to-front, hard to read to say the least; a bit like having "WELCOME TO LONDON" printed like "N O D N O L O T E M O C L E W"
Still, de Coubertin's spirit is not completely forgotten. A 57-year-old Chinese farmer, Chen Guanming, went on a slow journey from China (two and half years) to London, crossing 16 nations, on his three-wheel rickshaw in order to watch the opening ceremony. Now that he is in the Olympic city, if he really wants to see the event, he has to hope for the generosity of strangers because he does not have one of the 60,000 tickets for the Games' big kickoff.
With financial help from family and friends, our farmer got through Thailand's floods, crossed the icy roads of Tibet and survived freezing temperatures in Turkey.
When asked why he undertook his journey, he said he wanted to support the athletes and "spread the Olympic spirit."
Chen said he became inspired to come to London at the end of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and now plans to take a ship to the US and Canada, before travelling to Brazil for the 31st Olympiad in 2016.
Although his account cannot be independently verified; others can apparently vouch for him. A video posted on YouTube shows him in Rome, surrounded by curious passersby, seemingly backing his claim.
On his long journey, which saw him visit Vietnam, Pakistan and France, he was helped financially by local Chinese communities.