John Leicester

LONDON: The world city that needs no introduction but could do with an Olympic-sized pick-me-up in the midst of economic recession launches the 2012 Summer Games with a spectacular opening ceremony today that faces the challenge of being as memorable as Beijing’s planet-wowing, money-is-no-object extravaganza of 2008.

The British capital will set itself apart, as it has so often down the centuries, by being different. Beijing’s curtain raiser featured 2,008 pounding drummers and a cauldron-lighter who seemed to float in the air of the Bird’s Nest stadium. London will have 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens and nine geese — recruited by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle along with a cast and crew of 10,000 to present a quirky, humorous and vibrant vision of quintessential Britain, its history and future.

Tape-delayed coverage of the ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m. on WKYC (Channel 3).

London is not the same as it was when the games were awarded seven years ago. Its serenity and confidence were shaken by riots last year and by terrorist bombings on the transport network that killed 56 people the day after the International Olympic Committee picked London over Paris in 2005. In London, the Olympic Games have come to a sprawling, historic metropolis that lives and breathes sports, with a population more global and diverse than perhaps any other, but which still feels it needs the Olympic spotlight to secure its future as one of the world’s great cities.

In depicting Britain, warts and all, Boyle has drawn from William Shakespeare, British pop culture, literature and music, and other sources of inspiration that will speak not just to Anglophiles but also to people across the globe. One segment involves actor Daniel Craig’s James Bond, and former Beatle Paul McCartney will lead a sing-along.

Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” show will celebrate the green and pleasant land of meadows, farms, cottages, village cricket matches and bird song, but also dwell on Britain’s darker industrial past. That’s not a surprise from a movie director who depicted Scottish heroin addicts in Trainspotting and Indian poor in Slumdog Millionaire.

As well as thousands of athletes and performers, some 60,000 spectators will pack the Olympic Stadium. Political leaders from around the world, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, and a sprinkling of European and celebrity royalty will also attend.

According to the Sunday Times, one section will feature characters from children’s fiction classics including Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan — and a showdown between Lord Voldemort, the villain of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and a horde of flying magical nannies based on Mary Poppins.

“I would have thought the difficulty is how you cram in all that is great about our country,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday. “Whether it is sport, art, literature, history, contribution to world events, there are so many things to celebrate about our country that packing all that into these hours must be a pretty tough task. But I am confident they have done a good job.”

Many of the juiciest and most significant details from the three-hour show, including the identity of the person or people who will light the Olympic cauldron — if, indeed, there is one — remain secret. That is, in itself, remarkable for the first social media Olympics, where the urge to tweet anything and everything is putting more scrutiny than ever on organizers and the 10,902 athletes from 204 countries.

In Beijing, the geopolitical significance of China’s rise as a global superpower was as much the story as the sports. London, the first city to host the event a third time after previous games in 1908 and 1948, could in contrast be a purer Olympics, more about the athletes than the context. It could be more fun, too, without the backdrop of international concern over China’s human rights record.

Big questions are how London’s transport system will cope with millions of spectators and whether grumbling Britons will get behind their Olympics as they did for this year’s celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The monarch will officially open the games at tonight’s ceremony, starting with the ringing of a 27-ton bell.