The Olympic torch has not even entered the stadium and the 2012 games have already been bedeviled by controversy.
Security measures (or their absence), confusing VIP lanes, talk of unpreparedness, flag faux pas, Iranian belligerence and one very loud non-moment of silence have all dogged the international sporting competition before it’s even had a chance to get underway.
Yet for the hundreds of thousands swarming London and the hundreds of millions more awaiting the commencement of the Games at home, Friday’s opening of the newest installment of the Olympics has the power to transcend all the problems.
“This is a very, very tense moment but so far I’m cautiously optimistic,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told Reuters Thursday.
While Israel’s Olympic delegation has harbored hopes of making medal history, much of its efforts have been overshadowed so far by a controversy surrounding a moment of silence, or lack thereof, for the 11 members of the Israeli team murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 games.
The International Olympic Committee has been steadfast in its refusal to grant a moment of silence during the opening ceremony, despite calls by world leaders.
On Wednesday, widows of the athletes killed in the Munich massacre called on the opening ceremony crowd to stand up and hold their own moment of silence during a speech by IOC president Jacques Rogge.
Rogge has said holding a moment of silence would “politicize” the games. On Thursday, the Palestinian Authority praised his decision, saying that instituting a moment of silence for the victims of the Black September massacre would be tantamount to racism.
The three-hour opening ceremony extravaganza will be held Friday night, complete with a top-secret torch-lighting ceremony. The event, overseen by Danny Boyle, known for directing blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, will reportedly include homages to many things bright and British, from culture to the country’s National Health Service — apparently adding up to a quirky take on British life.
More than a billion people are expected to tune in for the event, according to Reuters.
The missing moment of silence won’t be the only issue Jews at the Olympics face. Those who keep Kosher dietary laws may have to make like Usain Bolt and run around just to fill their stomachs. According to the Jewish Chronicle, strict advertising standards at the games means kosher food providers can’t tell people where to find their products.
“People keep asking us where they can buy the food. We can’t tell them. We don’t even know ourselves. The contract caterers that we are supplying have said they can’t even tell us where our food will be sold or served,” said a spokesperson for Hermolis, one of the providers.
Even without imposed silence, organizers are hoping for a quiet Games security-wise. The whole competition is under heavy security, with London going so far as to position anti-aircraft missiles on residential rooftops near the venues. Nonetheless, security firm G4S has come under fire for failing to provide the level of service it promised.
The tightest security, it would seem, has been reserved for the Israelis, who are marking 40 years since the Munich massacre and are participating under the shadow of bombings and attempted bombings of Israelis around the world in the past several months. Five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed last week when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, sparking fears of more attacks to follow.
At a flag-hoisting ceremony at the Olympic village Wednesday night, a member of Israel’s delegation cracked that there were more guards than delegation members.
However, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Thursday that Israeli swimmers practicing in a London suburb had been given no security detail.
Despite Britain pumping $14 billion into the 17-day Games, including reworking London’s traffic system for the event, some still fear the city has hitches to work out.
The city created special Olympic driving lanes, for use by those connecting with the Games and nobody else, leading to confusion among drivers in the already congested city.
Wednesday saw an uncertain test of the English capital’s Olympic transport plan, as lanes reserved for Olympic VIPs came into force two days before the start of the games and the city’s creaky subway system struggled with glitches.
Traffic jams blocked some of the main routes into the city as the wildly unpopular “Games Lanes” took effect. The 30 miles (48 kilometers) of lanes are to operate from 6 a.m. to midnight throughout the games, and cars or taxi cabs that stray into them face a 130-pound ($200) fine.
“Drivers do have somewhere to go, but it’s been a bit confusing,” said Paul Watters, head of road policy at the British Automobile Association. “We know it’s going to be tricky and difficult, and it’s bound to be full of teething problems. We’re almost there now, so hopefully it will be better.”
US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who organized the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, this week called London’s problems with games preparation “disconcerting.” The remark sparked sharp responses from Britain’s top officials, and lots of backpedalling from the candidate, who is in London for Friday’s opening and then travels to Israel.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Romney and other doubters would “see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver.” London’s Johnson told tens of thousands gathered in Hyde Park: “There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready. Are we ready? Yes, we are!”
Israel’s athletes are also ready, for some time on the podium. The country only garnered one medal in Beijing in 2008, a bronze, but delegation head Zvi Warshaviak said he thinks the team has a shot to win three medals in London. The most the country has ever won in one Games is two medals, in 2004 and 1992.
The man considered the country’s best medal hope is also its oldest. Arik Zeevi, a 35-year-old judoka, has taken on the role as the team’s mentor.
London will mark Zeevi’s fourth Olympics. He won the bronze at the 2004 Athens Games, and he’s won nine medals in European Championships, including four golds.
Alongside Zeevi will be judoka Alice Schlesinger, 24, who perhaps represents the country’s best hope for the first woman on the podium since 1992.
Sergy Rikhter is only turning 23, but already he’s made a name for himself. The marksman shares the junior world record in the 10 meter air rifle, and in 2009 he won gold at the world championships. In 2011 he won silver at the world cup, and became the first Israeli athlete to claim a guaranteed spot at the London games.
Aside from judokas and shooters, the 37-member team has people competing in tennis, sprinting, badminton, pole vaulting, windsurfing, gymnasts and sailing.
Unfortunately for the team, they won’t be facing any Iranian athletes — in early stages at least — who would likely have been forced by Tehran to forfeit rather than face an Israeli.
Though the Iranian Olympic delegation head indicated earlier this week that Iran would play any country, Tehran quickly dismissed the remark as Zionist distortions and said its athletes would continue to boycott the blue and white.
The point seems moot anyway as the one Iranian athlete who might have had a chance at facing an Israeli, Javad Mahjoub, a judo champion, came down with a “critical digestive system infection,” and was forced to pull out of the Games Sunday.
Mahjoub is in the same weight class of Zeevi.
Egyptian Judoka Ramadan Darwish, who has refused to shake Zeevi’s hand in the past, could have provided Olympic tension, but was drawn into a different group. The two could still meet in a final.
Zeevi has said in the past that he has no problem fighting anybody.
“I don’t understand how people who do sports can involve politics with sports. When you are doing judo, football, basketball, you have to show up on the field, do your best. It doesn’t matter who you fight,” Zeevi said. “For me, I don’t have any problem to fight against a sportsman from any country, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. … I really don’t understand it.”
Perhaps the Iranians should just be happy that they do not have to play under the Star of David. North Koreans are not so lucky. On Wednesday, organizers accidentally displayed a South Korean flag to welcome the North Korean team for a soccer match. The team refused to take the field for a full hour after the foul up.
The Associated Press and Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.