Letters from London: So far removed from one year ago

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LONDON – Barriers create four rows that snake toward accreditation, though nobody’s in line. The pink boards promoting “London 2012” are supposed to welcome athletes and press that fly into Heathrow, but the games are over. It’s two days after the torch was extinguished, but two attendants are still waiting, lingering to help wayward arrivals as most fly the other way.

London’s still in the afterglow. News covers politicians, civic leaders, and Olympic organizers trying to frame history. They’re giving speeches from prominent venues, from boroughs said to be revitalized by the investment. Sebastian Coe, David Cameron, Boris Johnson – they’re trying to cast it as an underdog story. Great Britain’s spirit is restored by the successful Olympiad, an assertion that implies there was a problem before. Internal doubts, defeatism, guilt – nobody’s elaborating on the past. This week, the games are a redefining moment for Great Britain’s identity.

As with most contributions from the sporting sphere, speculation about lasting, societal effects may prove wishful thinking, but some pie-eyed optimism can be forgiven considering where London was last year. Then, a city stood shaken and confused by riots that had consumed by riots, eventually forcing the suspension of Spurs’ opening match with Everton. With sirens’ cries ricocheting off the city’s 300-year-old stone buildings, London was paralyzed by the idea unspoken, neglected tensions would erupt and redefine their city.

Returning to the city one year after the 2011 riots, it’s impossible for me to avoid the comparison. Last year’s London with this year’s London. They’re entirely different. One revealed a city at it’s most vulnerable. Now, London’s confident.

Last August, London’s residents walked its streets with alone, bristly, with blind determination intent on persisting with their lives. The vandalism, arson, and looting that dominated the media? You couldn’t let that stop you. Keep your head down and get where you’re going, is how they walked. Then, you may not notice the sirens. You may not see the police directing traffic on busy street, ready in case the unrest in Hackney, Bixton, and Tottenham Hale extended into the city’s center. People were worried, you’d hear at pubs after work, everybody free to speak with relief at the end of their day.

As violence spread beyond the city – to Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham – Londoners’ public lives became even more perfunctory, people uncertain when the uprising would end. When the Premier League started, providing some semblance that life would return to normal, London exhaled a deep stream of relief build up over five days spent with bated breadth.

This year, there’s no sign of that paralysis, though outside Victoria Station in central London, you don’t see an Olympic afterglow, either. There are no signs in shop windows. The papers have shifted their focus. But while only the public faces are still churning Olympic-inspired patriotism, it would be a mistake to undersell the Games’ impact. They provided a respite for a nation that would have otherwise dwelt on the riots’ one year anniversary. They allowed London to reclaim some innocence, a type of faith in each other which, when you listen as people walk along Buckingham Gate, allows sports fans to naively move on the city’s next big event. The Premier League season starts on Saturday.

Of the first weekend’s six 3:00 p.m. Saturday kick offs, four are in London (last year, there were two). The still Robin van Persie-employing Arsenal host Sunderland at the Emirates. Fulham, with Clint Dempsey in tow (or, is it the other way around), start their new season at Craven Cottage against Norwich City. Queens Park Rangers help bring in Swansea City’s post-Brendan Rodgers era, while West Ham United makes their return to the first division by welcoming Aston Villa.

By 5:30 p.m. local time, the season will be in full swing. During the day’s broadcasts, you’ll likely hear more references to the Olympics than last year’s unrest in London. Though that unspoken, neglected tension may still lie beneath the surface, London has moved on. Now, it’s the city of the 2012 summer games. And in three days, it will be the city of Premier League football.