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Officials bank on Games fervor to offset tight budget

Olympic torch bearer Amber Charles holds the Olympic flame on a floating pontoon in front of Tower Bridge in London.

Olympic officials are banking on local enthusiasm to make the Games that started Friday in London a success after economic difficulties curbed spending on the event.

The U.K. is spending a quarter of what China allocated for the last Games in Beijing. Friday’s opening ceremony, which features 70 sheep, 12 horses and a reading of a 200-year-old poem, takes place in one of the U.K. capital’s poorest areas with the host nation mired in recession. Four years ago, 14,000 performers welcomed the world to Beijing beneath 30,000 fireworks at the Bird’s Nest.

“There’s a lot you can do without necessarily throwing the money,” Jordan’s Prince Faisal al-Hussein, a member of the International Olympic Committee, said in an interview. “Money won’t give you enthusiasm.”

The games officially get under way with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle showcasing Britain’s history to an estimated television audience of more than a billion. The show portrays the U.K. as a green and pleasant land before moving through its industrial revolution in front of public figures, such as U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the Olympic Stadium.

“Each country should do it according to their culture, their custom, their mentality,” IOC executive board member Denis Oswald said in an interview. “Massive is the word for China. It’s not the word for here.”

Britain has allocated 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) of public money to host the 19-day spectacle, compared with China’s $70 billion outlay on the Beijing Olympics.

The Games arrive as Britain’s economy shrank the most in more than three years in the second quarter, extending its first double-dip recession since the 1970s. Gross domestic product fell 0.7 percent from the first quarter, when it dropped 0.3 percent, the Office for National Statistics said July 25.

To deal with Britain’s fiscal problems, Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen austerity. U.K. Sport spends about 100 million pounds of public funds annually in high-performance sport. Those funds may shrink as the Conservative-led coalition government trims the country’s record budget deficit, including a 27 million-pound cut to the Olympic budget.

The U.K. may not have bid to host the 2012 games had officials known that the country would enter four years of economic turmoil, according to John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority.

“We probably wouldn’t have gone ahead,” he said during an interview on Bloomberg Television. “If one is honest and we said that in 2004 or 2005, ‘well the economy is going to be in a terrible state,’ then politically it would have been a difficult decision to make.”

The use of existing or temporary facilities has helped London organizers keep costs down. The 15,000-seat beach volleyball arena at Horse Guards Parade is one such venue and is near Cameron’s official residence at 10 Downing Street.

Those stadiums will probably be full as tickets for London’s record third Olympics are close to sold out.

Home advantage may help local athletes provide a welcome distraction from the economy. British gymnast Beth Tweddle said she’ll be counting on the lift. “Normally when you go to a major championship, you’ve got your mum and dad, maybe with a flag, with a few other people in the audience,” Tweddle, 27, told reporters on July 24. “It’s nice to have a crowd behind you.”

One of the most anticipated events will be Usain Bolt’s defense of his 100-meter sprint victory against fellow Jamaicans Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay of the U.S. Only Carl Lewis, in 1984 and 1988, has won the event in consecutive games. The final is scheduled for Aug. 5 at 9:50 p.m. local time.

Bolt, who arrived in the U.K. capital Thursday with his teammates, said he has had slight injuries to his back and hamstring. He added that he was fit enough to successfully defend his titles and predicted the fastest competition in history.

“I’ve trained great for the past two and a half weeks and everything is coming together,” Bolt said during a news conference in east London. Bolt hasn’t raced since he lost to Blake, his training partner, at the Jamaican national trials, which ended July 1.

“The big story whether he wins or loses is going to be Bolt,” two-time Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson told Bloomberg Television. “If he’s at his best, Usain Bolt is obviously the man to beat.”

In the swimming pool, 14-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps must fight off fellow American Ryan Lochte. Phelps and Lochte swim in the heats of the 400-meter individual medley Saturday morning.

World record holder Phelps, who won the gold medal in the discipline at the past two Olympics, finished second to world champion Lochte in the event at the U.S. trials last month.

Phelps is chasing seven more gold medals after winning a record eight at the Beijing games after collecting six in Athens in 2004.

He has the most gold medals in history and 16 of all colors, leaving him needing three more to overhaul Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18 Olympic medals.

Britain has about 540 athletes competing and is targeting 48 medals in at least a dozen sports and a top-four finish in the standings. The first 12 gold medals from 302 events will be awarded tomorrow. The closing ceremony takes place Aug. 12.

Romney, who is visiting the country, questioned London’s preparedness in an interview on NBC after reports of security problems. The remarks drew rebukes from Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

London is a fitting host, according to IOC president Jacques Rogge, whose group wouldn’t allow a moment’s silence at the opening ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics, when 11 members of the Israeli team were killed in Munich by terrorists.

“Going to London, it’s going to the country that invented modern sport in the second half of the 19th century, included sport in its school curriculum, loves sport, knows sport well,” Rogge told reporters on July 21.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2012, on page 5.

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