Commentary

True star of the Games? London

Updated: July 27, 2012, 6:19 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

LONDON -- The 18th century English author Samuel Johnson declared, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." And bear in mind, he said this long before there were bikini-clad athletes playing beach volleyball at the Horse Guards Parade grounds.

Michael Phelps will swim at these 2012 Summer Olympics, Usain Bolt will run and LeBron James will dunk, but the true star of these Games is the city of London itself.

The host city is always vital to establishing the personality and spirit of a particular Olympics, but perhaps never more so than London, which offers a gold-medal-winning heptathlon of history, literature, architecture, music, sport, art, and, of course, fish and chips. This is the city of Shakespeare and Dickens, Big Ben and Tiny Tim, Abbey Road and Baker Street, Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria, the Rolling Stones and Gilbert and Sullivan, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Old Globe Theatre, Westminster Abbey and Wembley Stadium, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter ... I would list them all, but there are only 17 days in the Olympics.

"There are not as many distractions in Beijing, that's for sure," said beach volleyball player Todd Rogers, who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "There are only a couple things you really want to go do there, whereas here in London, there are quite a few things you want to go do. It's such a historic city, especially being Americans and having such a long history with Great Britain."

Indeed, just following the marathon route is a wonderful history lesson and one of the great vacation tours you could ever enjoy, especially if you duck into a pub for a pint or two. (Remember, it's important to hydrate during a marathon.) The three-lap course begins near Buckingham Palace, winds past Trafalgar Square, Parliament and Westminster Abbey, traces its way along the Thames, curves around St. Paul's Cathedral, passes London Bridge, and approaches the Tower of London before heading back to the starting point for another delicious lap.

There are so many breathtaking sights, the runners might set a record for the slowest marathon ever. It's hard to run when you're busy snapping photos and sharing them on Facebook.

Big Ben Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesLondon is the only city to host the Olympics three times.

"In years to come, men will speak of this war and say, 'I was a soldier,' 'I was a sailor' or 'I was a pilot.' Others will say with equal pride, 'I was a citizen of London.'"
-- CBS broadcaster Eric Sevareid during World War II

Over the next 17 days, Americans will focus on the Phelps-Ryan Lochte rivalry, Kobe Bryant and the U.S. basketball team, Jordyn Wieber and the gymnastic squad, Hope Solo and the women's soccer team, Sue Bird and the women's basketball team, and world-record decathlete Ashton Eaton and the American sprinters. But these Olympics are filled with other stories so captivating and magical that spectators should queue up on platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station.

For the first time, a man with carbon-fiber blades for legs, Oscar Pistorius, will run in the men's 400 meters. A woman will compete for Saudi Arabia for the first time; two, in fact: 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (although there is still a debate on the latter being allowed to compete with a headscarf).

Such stories are as thick here as the London fog, intersecting like the colored underground lines on the Tube map. There is royalty in the presence of King James on the U.S. basketball team and equestrian rider Zara Phillips, who is a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth. Asked by a reporter whether her grandmother or mother had given her any advice, Phillips replied Thursday, "Do you think I would tell you if they had?"

Fortunately, most of the athletes are far removed from the lofty 1 percent. That's what always makes the Olympic so compelling -- the 99 percent can more easily identify with these athletes even when we can scarcely imagine their journeys. Such as American distance runner Lopez Lomong, a former Lost Boy of Sudan. "I lived off United Nations food for 10 years," said Lomong, who will run the 5,000 meters. "When I was hungry, I would look up to see if anyone was dropping any food."

More than 10,000 athletes represent 204 nations here. And that's not counting marathoner Guor Marial. The Iowa State athlete is from the year-old nation of South Sudan, which is so newly independent it does not yet have an Olympic committee. (Apparently, food, water and daily survival are higher priorities.) That means the country can't compete here, although the IOC initially said Marial could run for Sudan. He refused, saying that to do so would be a betrayal to his 2 million countrymen who died for his new country's freedom.

The IOC cleared Marial last week to run independently under the Olympic flag, and he is waiting for his visa so he can run the marathon Aug. 12. He will be a citizen of the world during these Olympics. As should we all.

Oscar PistoriusMichael Steele/Getty ImagesOscar Pistorius is set to become the first amputee athlete to compete in the Summer Olympics.

"We may be a small country, but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that."
-- Hugh Grant as the new prime minister in the 2003 movie "Love Actually''

International best-selling travel/history/culture writer Bill Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa (his father was a sports writer who hitchhiked halfway across the country to see the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles), but has spent much of his adult life in England. He points out the British invented a great many sports but aren't particularly successful in most of them.

"In Britain, they do take it kind of hard because they did invent a lot of these sports, and other countries have taken them up and play them much more earnestly and actually, more often, beat them," he told me recently. "And the British, by and large, do not do very well at big international competitions. ...

"In many ways, the British have this endearing quality that they embrace defeat, kind of the Dunkirk spirit. That is a classic example -- when they were humiliated in the opening days of World War II, but they had a really great retreat and they handled that fantastically well. And when they kind of come second, or have a heroic defeat, it seems to please them more than any other group I've come across."

Bryson likens the British to Cubs fans, always expecting the worst ... and seldom being disappointed in that regard. "You shouldn't underestimate the value of being a perennial loser," he said. "There is something really quite wonderful with being a Cubs fan. That's a real test of loyalty when you support a team that loses year after year after year and you still stick with them. There's a lot to be said for that."

There is, but Britain is hoping for a changing of the guard, billing its Olympic team as "Our Greatest Team." The British should fare well in the traditional sitting sports -- equestrian, sailing, rowing and, especially, cycling, with Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and reigning world road champion Mark Cavendish.

They also could fare well enough in other sports -- heptathlete Jessica Ennis, distance runner Mo Farah and triple jumper Phillips Idowu in track, Rebecca Adlington in swimming -- that they might finish the Games feeling like winners, and their performance might even make up for that hideous 2012 logo.

Olympic StadiumJamie Squire/Getty ImagesOlympic Stadium will be the site for Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and all track events.

"This ... is London."
-- Edward R. Murrow's signature intro to his WWII broadcasts from London

London is the only city to host the Olympics three times. The first time was in 1908, when pole vaulters didn't have a cushioned pit in which to land (how high you could vault was in proportion to how far you were willing to fall) and the 26.2-mile length of the marathon was established.

The second time was in 1948, when the city still was rebuilding from the horrific bombings of World War II and food was still rationed. Because of the war, the 1948 Olympics were the first since 1936, and neither Germany nor Japan was allowed to compete. Because of the rationing and spartan conditions, they were known as the Austerity Games.

Much has changed in the 64 years since. The cost for these third London Olympics has been reported at more than $15 billion, with such extensive security that surface-to-air missiles are mounted on neighboring rooftops.

Austerity? The main entrance to Olympic Park requires passing through a sprawling, new shopping mall, where, in addition to mass consumers, security troops bearing submachine guns occasionally patrol in front of such restaurants as Jamie Oliver's Italian and such stores as Victoria's Secret and Foot Locker.

Much has been made about security and terrorism issues, but hopefully those concerns will prove as unnecessary as at many recent Olympics. Rather than focusing Scrooge-like (bah, humbug!) on what might possibly go wrong, we should concentrate on all that will go right.

The Olympics are beginning in a city that has inspired authors to write some of our most endearing stories; now, it is the athletes' turn to write theirs. The 2012 Games are afoot, Watson. Grab a pint and your umbrella, follow the second star on the right, and hold on for a 17-day Neverland of sport.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com