Excited, likely jet-lagged, bursting with ambition and surely a little nervous too, 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 has already been here for centuries.
In 116 years of globe-trotting, the Summer Games have landed in 22 cities, including London in 1908 and 1948. However, 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.
Olympic tradition is rooted in ancient Greece. However, 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 in London.
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.
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 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.
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.
London touted its ethnic mix as a positive when bidding for this year’s Games. Here, on city buses, you will 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.
For Ethiopian vegan curries, 5,000m and 10,000m 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.