LONDON (AP) — London, blow our minds.
The world city that needs no introduction but could do with an Olympic-sized pick-me-up in the midst of economic recession launches the 2012 Summer Games with a spectacular opening ceremony Friday that faces a unique challenge: to be as memorable as Beijing's planet-wowing, money-no-object extravaganza of 2008.
The British capital will set itself apart, as it has so often down the centuries, by being different. Beijing's curtain raiser featured 2,008 pounding drummers and a cauldron-lighter who seemed to float in the air of the Bird's Nest stadium. London will have 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens and nine geese — recruited by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle along with a cast and crew of 10,000 to present a quirky, humorous and vibrant vision of quintessential Britain, its history and future.
London is not the same as it was when the games were awarded seven years ago. Its serenity and confidence were shaken by riots last year and by terror bombings on the transport network that killed 56 people the day after the International Olympic Committee picked London over Paris in 2005. In London, the Olympic Games have come to a sprawling, historic metropolis that lives and breathes sports, with a population more global and diverse than perhaps any other, but which still feels it needs the Olympic spotlight to secure its future as one of the world's great cities.
In depicting Britain, warts and all, Boyle has drawn from William Shakespeare, British pop culture, literature and music, and other sources of inspiration that will speak not just to Anglophiles but to people across the globe. One segment involves actor Daniel Craig's James Bond, and former Beatle Paul McCartney will lead a sing-along.
Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" show will celebrate the green and pleasant land of meadows, farms, cottages, village cricket matches and bird song, but also dwell on Britain's darker industrial past. That's not a surprise from a movie director who depicted Scottish heroin addicts in "Trainspotting" and Indian poor in "Slumdog Millionaire."
As well as thousands of athletes and performers, some 60,000 spectators will pack the Olympic Stadium. Political leaders from around the world, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, and a sprinkling of European and celebrity royalty will also attend.
According to the Sunday Times, one section will feature characters from children's fiction classics including "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan" — and a showdown between Lord Voldemort, the villain of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books, and a horde of flying magical nannies based on Mary Poppins.
"I would have thought the difficulty is how you cram in all that is great about our country," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday. "Whether it is sport, art, literature, history, contribution to world events, there are so many things to celebrate about our country that packing all that in to these hours must be a pretty tough task. But I am confident they have done a good job."
Many of juiciest and most significant details from the three-hour show, including the identity of the person or people who will light the Olympic cauldron — if, indeed, there is one — remain secret. That is, in itself, remarkable for the first social media Olympics, where the urge to tweet anything and everything is putting more scrutiny than ever on organizers and the 10,902 athletes from 204 countries.
Most will return home after 16 days of competition as they arrived: the pride of family and friends but still unknown to the wider public, unsung practitioners of sports — think archery, synchronized swimming, wrestling and the like — that get little attention for 206 weeks before blossoming in the two-week Olympic festival.
Medalists will be guaranteed recognition and perhaps fame and fortune for the luckier ones, especially the more than 300 who win gold. A hundredth of a second here, a centimeter there, in the pool or in the shooting gallery could make an athlete a household name. Their gold medals will be largest of any summer games and, at 400 grams (14 ounces), the heaviest, too.
Amputee runner Oscar Pistorius and women boxers will get headlines for being Olympic pioneers. But for other established stars who fail in quests to retain or win more Olympic titles, London will mark the end or the beginning of the end of their careers.
U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps insists these will be his last games. The 14-time gold medalist will go out with a bang, aiming to claim the unofficial title of greatest Olympian ever from Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. She got 18 medals. Phelps has 16, and seven opportunities in London to overtake her. His rivalry with U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte promises one of the most compelling dramas of London. They will swim against each other twice: in medleys over 200 meters and, on the first full day of competition Saturday, over 400 meters in the Aquatics Center with its ceiling that slopes like