With the thousands of washboard-abbed world-class athletes in London, who would have ever guessed that one of the most charismatic figures of the Games would be their host, a pasty, rather doughy bloke who's rarely seen in anything other than a suit, even when he's toodling around town on an old-fashioned bike? The Olympics are always more fun when a dash of lovable incompetence is sprinkled in among the athletic excellence—like Eddie the Eagle or the Jamaican bobsled team. Into that role, in the fine tradition of British comedy, has stepped London mayor Boris Johnson, who comes complete with a catchy Olympic handle. You remember FloJo? Hizzoner is known as BoJo.
That's dangerously close to Bozo, and many Londoners tend to cringe a bit at the mayor's clownish tendencies. He found himself dangling in the air above Victoria Park in a public appearance last week for instance, the victim of a zip line malfunction. It was impossible not to laugh at the sight of a smiling Johnson suspended like a marionette for roughly five minutes, rather pathetically waving a pair of British flags. Even his sister, Rachel, couldn't help poking fun when she saw him uncomfortably lodged in a harness, 30 feet in the air, a big kid stuck in a baby swing. "He has won gold," she said, "in the flying coxless wedgie."
Johnson, 48, has the air of a modern-day Benny Hill, all pratfalls and physical comedy, but he's no buffoon. An Oxford grad who is fond of quoting Homer and Virgil, he has an erudite, if sometimes indecipherable, way of putting a sunny spin on everything. After witnessing a disappointing afternoon for British cyclists at the velodrome, Johnson, who bikes to work each day at a significantly slower speed, was unbowed. "A splendid day," he said upon leaving. "A victory for the votaries of the velocipede."
The Games are running quite splendidly, even though more of the credit for that should probably go to such people as Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Olympic organizing committee, than to the mayor. But Johnson has been out front and center, enthusiastically cheering on Team Great Britain, even if he doesn't always know exactly what he's cheering for. He was visiting the barracks of the military personnel providing Olympic security last Friday when he noticed the British women's double sculls team racing for the gold (which they won) on television. Johnson yelled at the screen, "Come on, whoever you are, doing whatever you're doing!"
A former journalist, BoJo writes a newspaper column for The Telegraph that has been a must-read during the Olympics. In his piece listing "20 jolly good reasons to feel cheerful about the Games," item 16 was, "The Olympics are proving to be a boost to tattoo parlours. Plenty of people seem to want their thighs inscribed with 'Oylimpics 2012' and other ineradicable mis-spellings." Item 19 included this: "As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball.... The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers."
The same might be said of the mayor. But BoJo is bonkers like a fox. His name has been bandied about as a future candidate for prime minister, and though he says he has "as much chance [of that] as being reincarnated as an olive," he certainly seems intent on raising his profile. He has even taken his act across the pond to "thrust and parry with the hosts of the American chat shows." Johnson has an unruly thatch of blond locks that often make him look as if he's just driven 100 mph in a convertible, which prompted David Letterman, to ask, "And how long you been cuttin' your own hair?"
The mayor, however, is quite capable of a good parry himself. When he appeared on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently, he had a bit of a go at New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, theaters and stadiums. BoJo offered up his city as a sort of HoJo's. "Refugees from the soda tyranny ... will have sanctuary in London," he said. "If you do wish to ... drink Coca-Cola from a 16-ounce pot, come you tired, you poor, you huddled masses yearning to break free."
Although his parents are British, Johnson could bring his political ambitions to the States if he chose, since he was born in New York City while his father briefly worked in the U.S. It's hard to imagine he'd survive an American election, however, as his every utterance would cause a media brushfire. He once said that he didn't think driving while talking on a cellphone was "necessarily any more dangerous than the many other risky things that people do with their free hands while driving—nose picking, reading the paper, studying the A-Z, beating the children and so on."
The mayor is on safer ground when crowing about the success of the Games. "It's been a Himalayan range of high points," he says. "I dare not single out one particular peak." Spoken like a man who knows that in his event, the politician's self-promotional marathon, he has already won the gold.