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."