Column: Olympic first, a home from home in London

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By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Excited, likely jet-lagged, bursting with ambition and surely a little nervous, too, the thousands of Olympians speaking a multitude of tongues will find and settle into their rooms at London's new, purpose-built Olympic Village this July. And, in what is now Olympic tradition, they will celebrate their presence by draping their nations' flags from the windows and balconies.

"London, we've arrived!" the riot of color will proclaim. "The whole world is at your door!"

Only, this time, the world was already here. Has been for centuries.

In 116 years of globe-trotting, the Summer Games have landed in 22 cities, including London in 1908 and '48. But never have they visited a city so global and so globally connected as the cultural, linguistic, culinary and human soup that 21st century London has become.

There are those who claim London 2012 lacks a dominant theme, that it is merely an interlude between other Olympics with geopolitical significance: the 2008 Beijing and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games that celebrated or will celebrate the rise of China and Brazil as global players.

But London will be unique, too, because it will marry the world's ultimate sporting extravaganza with its ultimate world city.

Olympic tradition is rooted in ancient Greece. But, in the great melting pot of London, Olympians from the globe's remotest reaches will find echoes of home.

Beijing's games were grand; Rio's will be South America's first; but dirty, teeming, riotous, polluted, multicolored, multicultural, tea-drinking, beer-swilling London can boast universality, something for everyone competing and for those watching, too.

Put simply, quite possibly for the first time in Olympic history, many or perhaps all of the 14,700 Olympians and Paralympians expected from more than 200 countries will most likely have compatriots — a personal, ready-made fan base — who already live here.

All should find things that speak to them — perhaps a mosque or a synagogue cohabiting cheek by jowl, a Caribbean poetry reading or a Turkish bath, a curry house in "Banglatown," a French patisserie or performances in Lithuanian of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (June 2 and 3 at the Globe Theater). Each flag in the athletes' windows should speak to a Londoner, too.

Since the Romans built Londinium 2,000 years ago, the centuries have brought waves of settlers who left layers of history, like silt deposited with Thames tides.

Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans; chained African slaves and Indian sailors who, after crewing merchant ships pregnant with wares, were abandoned in the city that was the mighty heart of a voracious and self-righteous global empire; revolutionaries, freethinkers and persecuted East European Jews who suckled on the freedom of a sometimes cruel and lawless city that hot-housed democracy; Caribbean immigrants who came to breathe life into bombed-out but defiant London after World War II, people like the calypso singer from Trinidad with the stage name Lord Kitchener. He broke into song after arriving on the SS Empire Windrush with 500 other jobseekers in 1948.

"London is the place for me," he sang. "London this lovely city."

In London circa-1800, poet William Wordsworth marveled at the crowds teeming with "all specimens of man, through all the colors which the sun bestows ... The Swede, the Russian; from the genial south, the Frenchman and the Spaniard; from remote America, the hunter-Indian; Moors, Malays, Lascars, the Tartar and Chinese."

Before him, 18th century writer Samuel Johnson felt that, "by seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show."

For contemporary British Rasta poet Benjamin Zephaniah, modern London is where "all the world can come and dine ... cultures melt and intertwine," a city which "can play any song" and where "three hundred languages give voice to fifteen thousand changing years."

The Olympic host borough of Newham in East London boasts the most ethnically diverse population in Britain. Only 45 percent of adults there say they speak English as their first language — the lowest percentage in London and way below the national average of more than 93 percent.

Researchers have identified 233 different languages spoken by London schoolchildren. In Newham's state-run schools, only a third of pupils reported speaking English at home. A 2008 school census found the 13,840 Newham pupils who do are outnumbered by the 14,530 who reported speaking either Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati or Tamil — languages of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There were also, among others, 1,440 speakers of Somali and 370 of "Creoles and pidgins."

London touted its ethnic mix as a positive when bidding for the 2012 Games. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair promised the International Olympic Committee in 2004 that the city's "amazing diversity" would contribute to an Olympic atmosphere "like no other."

But, often, from when native warrior queen Boudica torched the Romans' London until today, the pieces in this human jigsaw haven't slotted easily together.

British empire-builders practically invented racism, pushing derogatory and offensive notions of supposed African inferiority to try to justify the slave trade.

Fascist leader Oswald Mosley and his black shirts rallied against Jews in the 1930s in Hackney, another Olympic host borough in London's East End.

Under the headline, "Noisy Parties 'A Threat to Race Peace,'" Newham's local paper, the Recorder, reported in 1969 that loud music and dancing nights were "causing bad feeling between West Indians and their neighbors," identified as white.

"West Indians must give up some of the things they used to do," it quoted a community relations officer, Alexander Kirby, as saying, "because they don't fit into their new environment."

Clive Bettington, chairman of the Jewish East End Celebration Society, says he has been stoned and spat on by Muslim youths while leading walking tours of Jewish landmarks.

Altab Ali Park in the East End's Tower Hamlets, another Olympic host borough, is named after a Bengali clothing worker murdered on his way home in 1978 in a racist attack by three teenagers.

And in London's May 3 election for mayor, the far-right, anti-immigration British National Party fielded a candidate who is himself an immigrant. Carlos Cortiglia, born in Uruguay to parents of Italian and Spanish ancestry, campaigned that London's "multiculturalism has clearly led to division and confrontation instead of integration."

Go figure. Perhaps only London could produce such a walking contradiction.

Here, on city buses, you'll hear people speaking languages you might recognize and certainly many you do not.

In practical terms, competing in this global shop-window will mean that if Usain Bolt hungers for home cooking this July he can nip quickly to Caribbean Scene on the Olympic Park's fringe for curry goat, saltfish and a side of plantain. The Olympic 100- and 200-meter champion can't miss it: the restaurant has the Jamaican's portrait painted on an inside wall.

For Ethiopian vegan curries, 5,000 and 10,000 champion Kenenisa Bekele should try the East End's Brick Lane market. The stall holder there who spoons out the stews is from Myanmar. That might be bizarre, unthinkable even, in a less cosmopolitan city, but it neatly captures London's mishmash.

Muslim athletes could say prayers at the Great Mosque on Brick Lane's junction with Fournier Street. Built as a chapel for French Protestant Huguenots in the 1700s and later converted into a synagogue and then a mosque, it could be a metaphor for modern London's overlapping cultures and immigrant histories.

So, too, could the Shanghai restaurant in Dalston west of the Olympic Park in an eatery which used to sell eel pie and mash potatoes, the most traditional East London fare.

In the delightfully preserved 150-year-old decor, between serving a nurse from Cuba who ordered butterfly prawns and sweet roast pork and a white woman who wanted noodles for her two children, manager Peter Cheung dug out a photo of one of his most regular patrons to show off to a recent visitor.

Cheung moved to London from Hong Kong. The photo was of British TV broadcaster and commentator Hardeep Singh Kohli. He is a British Indian Sikh who grew up in Glasgow, Scotland.

Londoners, a worldly breed, indeed.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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