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Friday, July 20, 2012
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London at its best -- Part I
Sammy Lee remembers it vividly: food rationing, bombed-out buildings, rubble.

The year was 1948, and London was hosting the Olympics in the aftermath of World War II. Lee, an American diver, and his fellow amateur athletes slept on cots at local air bases and schools, brought their own towels and were taken to events in old London buses.

"We didn't mind," said Lee, who won a gold and a bronze medal. "It was the spirit of the Olympics. We were there to compete against the best." Sixty-four years later, Lee will return as a spectator when London welcomes the world again.

Saying these 2012 Olympics will be much different is in itself a gold-medal understatement. This will be a US$14.5 billion (approximately NT$434 billion) extravaganza featuring global stars like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, shiny new venues and a revitalized East London.

This should be London's finest hour. A chance to throw a rousing five-ring celebration, an event that restores the festive atmosphere lacking at the past two Olympics in Athens and Beijing.

The city will provide a stunning mix of old and new, including beach volleyball players diving across the sand in Horse Guards Parade, practically on the doorstep of the prime minister's 10 Downing Street residence; marathon runners and road cyclists winding past Buckingham Palace; tennis stars dueling on the Centre Court grass at Wimbledon; archers firing their arrows at the hallowed Lord's cricket ground; and sprinters and swimmers competing in brand new arenas erected in a once derelict area of East London brought back to life as the Olympic Park.

Headlining the show will be around 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries. What can Bolt possibly do for an encore after his jaw-dropping three gold medals and three world records on the track in Beijing? Can 14-time gold medalist Phelps — winner of a record eight gold medals in the pool in Beijing — hold off American rival Ryan Lochte in what Phelps says will be his final Olympics?

Also at stake will be the top spot in the medals table between the world's two sporting superpowers: the United States and China. The U.S. won the most medals (110) in Beijing, but China took the most golds (51). Expect a tight race on both fronts this time.

Away from the playing fields, the city is dressing up, from the giant Olympic rings on Tower Bridge, to the party venues and giant screens in Hyde Park, to the landscaped gardens inside the 560-acre Olympic Park.

Four years ago, China used the Beijing Olympics as a coming-out spectacle to underscore its presence as a world power. It spent US$40 billion (approximately NT$1.2 trillion) on the games, erecting iconic venues like the Bird's Nest stadium and the Water Cube, and staging a grandiose opening ceremony.

London never tried to compete with the epic scale of Beijing, but the Olympic budget of US$14.5 billion is still more than triple the estimated cost when London secured the games in 2005. "This is the first time London got the games with no particular crisis around, but then they marched right into the worst financial crisis in almost a century," senior International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound of Canada said. "But they have succeeded remarkably well in spite of that."

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