LONDON - When Big Ben struck 12 to ring in the New Year, no one felt the level of anticipation - and pressure - more than organizers of the London Olympics.
With the arrival of 2012, the preparations will no longer be for “next year’s Games.’’
The Olympics are this year, less than seven months away - exactly 209 days from Jan. 1 until the opening ceremony July 27.
London has been preparing seven years for the Games, ever since it defeated Paris in the final round of the International Olympic Committee vote in Singapore on July 6, 2005.
Now, the countdown is truly in the final stretch for the U.K.’s biggest peacetime exercise, or what organizing committee leader Sebastian Coe calls a “Halley’s Comet’’ moment for Britain.
In a busy year that also will feature Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and the European Football Championship in Poland and Ukraine, the Olympics stand out as the marquee event of the summer of 2012, a sporting festival that will put London at the epicenter of global attention for 17 days.
The start of 2012 carries symbolic and psychological significance for Coe, a two-time gold medalist in the 1,500 meters who knows the feeling of entering an Olympic year as an athlete.
“For us there will be the realization that there are no more years now. We are down to days,’’ Coe said. “This is the Olympics and it doesn’t get any bigger, and the responsibility doesn’t get any greater than this.’’
Most of the venues are built and ready for the 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries who will converge on the city next summer for 16 days of competition in 26 sports and 300 medal events.
“I feel relaxed but certainly not complacent,’’ Coe said. “We have big challenges, of course. Delivery of 26 world championships is never going to be a stroll in the park. We know these are the hard yards. There’s nothing easy about the next few months.’’
A former industrial wasteland in east London has been transformed into the Olympic Park, a 1-square-mile area featuring several flagship arenas and representing the centerpiece of a long-term regeneration project for one of the most deprived areas of England.
Financially, London has managed surprisingly well during some of the worst economic conditions in decades, raising more than $1 billion from sponsors.
Despite a public outcry over a ticketing system that left hundreds of thousands of applicants empty-handed, organizers raked in hundreds of millions more in revenues from ticket sales. The Games are virtually sold out and Coe’s privately funded organizing committee, LOCOG, is on track to meet its $3.3 billion operating budget.
The overall $14.6 billion public sector budget for the Olympics remains intact. Government auditors recently warned there is a “real risk’’ that more taxpayer money could be needed to cover the bills.
Most of the budget pressure comes from extra security costs, which have ballooned to more than $1.6 billion. The planned number of security guards at venues has risen from 10,000 to 23,700 - on top of 12,000 police on the streets. Up to 13,500 military personnel will be deployed, a warship stationed on the Thames, and fighter jets put on standby.
After the grandiose 2008 Olympics, where money was no object, London organizers have stressed they won’t try to compete with the epic scale of Beijing and will instead bring their own British touch and identity to these Games.
Above all, London is promising an event that is fun - packed venues, live sites, and giant screens across the city, culture and entertainment, a party atmosphere day and night.
And, at a time of economic gloom and austerity in Britain, Coe wants to deliver an event that “lifts the spirit of the nation.’’