The biggest sporting show on earth comes to London for a record third time in history and the wait is almost over, writes Felix Lowe.
It seems an age ago that London pipped Paris to host the 2012 Olympic Games. What then felt like a distant pipe dream is now creeping tantalisingly close, with the fabled Olympic flame all but lit.
Since Trafalgar Square erupted with euphoria on learning of London's triumph on Wednesday 6 July 2005, it's fair to say a lot has happened. London has been through two mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson and may yet have a third before the Games begin; Tony Blair, the then-Prime Minister who allegedly "danced a jig" on hearing the result, has long gone; even Pat from EastEnders has moved on to pastures new.
"This is our moment," said Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, after winning the hardest race of his career. Years of eager preparation now in the past, London's real Olympic moment is coming right up and the world awaits what could be the best Olympics ever.
For a record-breaking third time in history after 1908 and 1948 the modern Olympic Games comes to London. There have been some ups and downs (the vastly inflated budget, for instance, or the infamous synchronised swimming ticket fiasco); there have been some false starts (will Boris' grand cable car project ever get off the ground, let alone across the river?).
But with all the sporting venues completed well on time and the Olympic Park in Stratford shaping up nicely, morale is high for all those concerned: the 10,000+ athletes, LOCOG, Wenlock and Mandeville the official mascots and, most importantly, Londoners and those who visit this great city.
On 27 July 2012, all eyes (an expected global TV audience of four billion) will be on London as the Games get under way with the Opening Ceremony at the new state-of-the-art Olympic Stadium.
The big kick-off actually takes place two days earlier with the start of the first round of football matches taking place in various stadia throughout the UK. Earlier still, the Olympic Torch Relay arrives in London on 21 July after touring the British Isles for more than two months, starting in England's most south-westerly tip, Land's End, on 19 May.
The next best thing...
For those of you who have missed out on Olympic tickets or for those who simply cannot hold on until the summer there's still an array of London 2012 Test Events taking part in various venues, including diving and cycling (February), swimming (March), shooting and synchronised swimming (April), and hockey, athletics and various Paralympic events (May).
Although not actual London 2012 events, these Test Events are the next best thing and will allow athletes and spectators to sample the new venues ahead of the Games.
The diving competition, for instance, will be the first competitive sporting event to be staged at the eye-catching Aquatics Centre. Designed by Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid, the iconic wave-shaped centre is one of almost a dozen new or temporary venues to be built in the Olympic Park in London's East End, the focal point of which will be the 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, London 2012's beating heart.
For many, the most impressive of new Olympic venues is the magnificent Velodrome; shaped like a giant Pringle crisp, it's a stunning architectural and environmental feat. And don't forget the ruby red 115-metre-high Orbit sculpture, designed by the Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor. The helter skelter-style, looping lattice of tubular steel incorporates the five Olympic rings and standing 22 metres taller than New York's Statue of Liberty will offer visitors unrivalled views of London's incredible skyline.
The completion date for the Orbit is in May, so be sure to head down and see what all the fuss is about in person. Visitors can already access large parts of the Olympic Park, which with construction over, is being filled with 2,000 trees and 300,000 wetland plants. The Greenway path boasts impressive views over the park, while the View Tube, also reached by Hackney Wick or Pudding Mill stations, offers a brief history of the London 2012 Games, as well as interactive maps and photos of all the construction phases.
Visiting the Olympic Park cannot be easier following a complete redevelopment of Stratford Regional and International Rail and Tube, including the construction of the new Westfield the largest urban shopping centre in Europe. During the Games, a special Javelin train service will shuttle 25,000 spectators a hour between King's Cross and Stratford, making the Olympic Park reachable in just seven minutes from Central London.
Of course, not all the action will be taking place in the Olympic Park, with numerous other events split between the River Zone around Greenwich (primarily at The O2 Arena and ExCeL), the Central Zone, and numerous venues outside London, such as Portland & Weymouth (sailing), Eton Dorney (rowing) and Lee Valley (canoeing). While many will be excited about the prospect of experiencing the Olympic Park in action, for others the real thrill of London 2012 will come in seeing incongruous events such as beach volleyball being played in some of the capital's most historic locations Horse Guards Parade in this case.
Cyclists and runners finishing in the shadow of Buckingham Palace on The Mall; triathletes running, swimming and pedalling their way through Hyde Park and the Serpentine; horse riders show jumping at the Old Royal Naval College and eventing around Greenwich Park; shooters hitting the target at the Royal Artillery Barracks; Andy Murray having a second pop at Wimbledon with Olympic tennis at the All England Club; archers firing arrows across the hallowed square at the historic Lord's Cricket Ground: all these scenarios are what will make London 2012 unlike any Olympic Games before.
Incorporating the whole of London makes London 2012 one of the most accessible Olympic Games ever. What's more, London 2012 is not simply about sporting feats: even those people with very little interest in the events will be swept up by the magic of the Games thanks to the London 2012 Festival, the climax of the 30th Cultural Olympiad.
Running alongside both the Olympics and Paralympics for 12 weeks this summer, the London 2012 Festival will bring leading artists from all over the world to London as part of the UK's biggest ever festival. The likes of David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Yoko Ono, Damon Albarn, Cate Blanchett, Akram Khan, Tracy Emin, Mike Leigh, Shakespeare, Alfred Hitchcock, Titian as well as every venue, minor or major, across the capital are all involved.
Whether you're into dance, music, theatre, poetry, literature, history, sport, the visual arts, film or digital innovation, there's something for you. Venues and event organisers across the capital have raised their game, making London the most important destination worldwide this summer.
So: on your marks, get set, go! London 2012 is a race that no one can lose.