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London itself is something of an Olympic Village

LONDON — The last time this city hosted the Olympics, in 1948, the French team was so skeptical of what war-weary, cuisine-challenged Britain had to offer that it brought its own wine.

Now more than a quarter-million French people call London home, making it the largest French city outside France, and bottles of Bordeaux line supermarket shelves.

Muslim competitors who wanted to pray together in ’48 had few places to do so. Today, the British capital probably has more mosques than any other city in the West.

PHOTOS: Olympic scenes in London

As the Friday kickoff of the 2012 Summer Games nears, Cameroonian boxers can rest easy knowing there’s comfort food at a restaurant up the road, Chinese divers can chat in Mandarin with shopkeepers in Chinatown, Brazilian soccer players can dance the samba in a West End club and American athletes can be relieved that signs are still in English.

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It’s all a testament to one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the history of the planet. The Olympics may like to boast of bringing the world to their hosts, but Londoners are already used to having the world outside their doorstep.

The heady mix of ethnicities and cultures can produce friction and fear: The police shooting of an unarmed black man sparked protests that led to riots across England last year, the threat of Islamic terrorism adds a thrum of tension to daily life, and immigration is a hot-button political issue.

But overall, London’s pluralism has lent a special flavor to these Games, held among residents who know what it’s like to host international gatherings — their living rooms often do that — and who mirror the diversity of the competitors, spectators and journalists flocking here.

Not since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics has a host city been such an embodiment of the global nature of the Games.

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“It’s my favorite thing about London. You can be anybody and feel like you belong,” said Grace Nicholls, 23, who joined an enthusiastic throng early Thursday to catch a glimpse of the Olympic torch. “The whole world is in London.”

Nicholls herself is a case in point. The daughter of a British father and Dutch mother, she grew up in the Netherlands but moved to London four years ago to attend college. She’s just completed a degree in Arabic and Persian, and lives in a neighborhood popular with Turks, Kurds and Poles.

Nicholls is among the astonishing 40% of Londoners who aren’t merely of foreign ancestry but who were born outside Britain. The city of 8 million inhabitants has 50 minority groups of at least 10,000 people each, including the most Bangladeshis anywhere besides Bangladesh. More than 300 languages, from Armenian to Zulu, are spoken in the schools.

Walk down almost any street and that variety will be both visible and audible, in the rainbow of complexions and the polyglot conversations. Indeed, the city of London is essentially the Olympic Village writ large, a place where cultures and nations mingle, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in friendly — or not so friendly — rivalry.

For the thousands of foreign visitors pouring in over the coming days, blending in will be far easier here than in Beijing, which hosted the Games in 2008 and which remains much more homogeneous.

“You can’t spot the Olympic tourists. You can’t tell them apart from residents, except for maybe an Olympic backpack,” Nicholls said with a laugh.

Of course, not everyone is at ease with the remarkable transformation of a city whose foreign-born population at the time of the previous Games, 64 years ago, was just 7%. It was even less than that, somewhere around 4.5%, in 1908 during the first of London’s three Olympics — the highest number of Games hosted by any city.

With Britain mired in a double-dip recession and saddled with a high unemployment rate, immigration remains a fraught political issue, shadowed by the rise of far-right groups that spout chauvinistic and at times nakedly racist rhetoric.

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Violent clashes have occasionally erupted between Muslims and anti-immigrant demonstrators. Riots in August resulted in the deaths of five people, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and produced a Rodney King-like moment in which the father of one of those killed made an impassioned public plea for calm.

For these Olympics, fear of terrorism, both “homegrown” and from abroad, has prompted officials to call up about 18,000 troops to help protect the Games, more than Britain has deployed in Afghanistan. Londoners still remember that the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings on the city’s transit system, which killed 52 people, happened the day after London won the right to host the 2012 Games.

The Conservative-led government is now trying to tighten restrictions on foreigners wishing to settle here.

Yet history suggests that it’s a losing battle.

“Britain, and London particularly as the capital city, has always drawn immigrants to it. You can go back to Roman times when the Romans set up Londinium, and the Vikings moved backwards and forwards,” said Anne Kershen, an expert on immigration history at Queen Mary, University of London.

In the City, London’s storied financial district, “you [have] Lombard Street, because Italians were bankers there. We owe beer-drinking to the Dutch,” Kershen said. “It’s been a continual inflow.”

Newcomers from the continent eventually gave way to arrivals from former British colonies and, more recently, refugees from conflict-ridden countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Zimbabwe. On the other end of the socioeconomic scale, Russian oligarchs and Saudi sheiks have made London’s toniest neighborhoods their private playgrounds.

As society grew less monochromatic, attitudes didn’t always keep pace. Through much of the 20th century, Britain could still be extremely insular, sometimes hilariously so: In the classic 1949 comedy film “Passport to Pimlico,” residents of one London district discover that their neighborhood is actually part of the French duchy of Burgundy, causing a horrified local policeman to exclaim, “Blimey, I’m a foreigner!”

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Overt xenophobia is much rarer now in London, and probably will not obtrude on the Olympics. In fact, the East London borough where the shiny new Olympic Park stands and where the $42-million opening ceremony will take place is a predominantly black and Asian area.

Just what Friday evening’s lavish spectacle will feature has been a closely guarded secret. It’s also been of interest to commentators and critics who wonder whether the ceremony will show contemporary, urban, melting-pot Britain and not just some idealized vision of its bucolic past.

“I’m sure there’ll be something for everyone,” Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday. “I hope that … people who have different views of Britishness will be able to come together and say they really find things that they like in this. We have a lot to celebrate in this country.”

And it seems that Londoners are finally in a mood to celebrate, after weeks and months of typical grousing about the cost of the Olympics, the weather, the massive security, the weather, the traffic and the weather. Even some of the most curmudgeonly columnists have called for a timeout on the British gold-medal sport of “whinging,” or complaining, saying that it’s time to get behind the Games.

For the next two weeks, the world’s eyes will be on this multicultural, international city. In many ways, what they’ll see will be the world’s own reflection.

“When I go on holiday and I come back, I really notice that — all the ethnicities, all the religions,” said Francesca Sidoli, 23, who moved here from Scotland several years ago. “That’s how London is. It encompasses everyone.”

henry.chu@latimes.com


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