Yet they pulled it off, keeping the Olympic ideal alive after 12 dormant years when it seemed the world might never come together again. That is what they do in this country: They keep calm and carry on, true to their wartime slogan. Friday, London welcomed the Olympics back to its green and pleasant land under much happier circumstances, throwing an Opening Ceremony bash that let the Brits shake off some of the doubts that plagued the runup to these Games -- and kick off the Olympics with a long-overdue dose of fun.
The ceremony at Olympic Stadium was decidedly unstuffy, a departure from the seriousness of Beijing's pageant four years ago. It blended high art and low comedy, Mr. Bean and Johnny Rotten, pop culture and agriculture. Even the queen got into the spirit, playing herself -- for the first time on film -- in a cheeky bit with James Bond.
The 1948 Olympics were dubbed the "Austerity Games,'' because the war's devastation meant a frugal budget and no new venues. Austerity has been an undercurrent in these Olympics, too, as the European economic crisis caused many Brits to question spending 9 billion pounds on a sporting event. But that didn't seem to matter Friday, as they plunged headfirst into the Olympic spirit.
"I have never been so proud to be British and to be part of the Olympic movement as I am on this day, at this moment,'' said London Games chairman Lord Sebastian Coe, to his countrymen's raucous cheers. "For us, too, for every Briton, just as the competitors, this is our time. And one day we will tell our children and grandchildren that when our time came, we did it right.''
Coe, a four-time Olympic medalist who headed London's bid, might have been making a subtle dig at those who doubted Britain's ability to handle this vast undertaking. Some of the criticism came from outside, including comments made Thursday by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Some came from within, as the country fretted about the weather, the traffic, the aging subway, security and anything else that might go wrong.
A number of political gaffes -- including the botched translation of an Arabic sign and displaying the South Korean flag for the North Korean team -- raised further questions. Friday's ceremony muscled those incidents into the background, putting Britain's rich history and love of country on full display.
Earlier in the day, the Olympic torch cruised down the River Thames on the boat Gloriana, adding to the crowd of more than 3 million citizens who had come to see it since its arrival in London. Another 80,000 gathered in Olympic Stadium, the centerpiece of a former industrial wasteland transformed into the Olympic Park in East London.
The show cost 27 million pounds to produce, and it showcased Britain's endearing quirkiness. What other country would boast about its National Health Service by having 600 medical personnel dance in front of a worldwide audience of 4 billion? Would any other nation dare to play the Bee Gees while the delegation from Fiji entered the stadium, led by flagbearer Josateki Naulu in a grass skirt?
The 203 other nations happily played along. The Czech Republic, in a nod to Britain's damp weather, sported Wellington rain boots and umbrellas. The 529-member American delegation followed its longstanding tradition of not dipping the flag when it passed the Royal Box, but many athletes waved to First Lady Michelle Obama and danced arm in arm.
"You could feel it all the way through your body when you walked into the stadium,'' said U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler Justin Lester. "It was everything and more than you can imagine.''
The home team wore white, with a daring touch: sparkling gold trim, indicating its confidence that it will rack up medals. The first could come Saturday, as cyclist Mark Cavendish is favored to take the road race.
In his speech, Coe alluded to London's history as Olympic host in times of trial. It welcomed the 1908 Games as a substitute for Rome, which could not host after Mount Vesuvius erupted. Its postwar Olympics of 1948 revived spirits at home and around the world.
These Games suffered their own blow the day after they were awarded to London in 2005, when a series of suicide bombings on the public transport system killed 52 people and injured 700. But the British kept calm and carried on, as they always seem to do. Friday, when seven young athletes lit petals of flame that folded up into the Olympic cauldron, they symbolized what Coe hopes these Games will show: the very best of all of us.
"[London is] the only city to have welcomed the Games three times," Coe said. "Each time, we have done it when the world faced turbulence and trouble. And each time, the Games have been a triumph."