WEYMOUTH, England – The view from the rocky Portland cliffs has long provided a stunning panorama of coastline and white beaches. King George III was so enraptured by its beauty he vacationed here in the 1700s in nearby Weymouth.
A modern-day version of sporting royalty has come to this quaint seaside locale. About 140 miles south of London, the heartbeat of the 2012 Games, Olympic sailing competition began Sunday with 65,000 tickets sold for its 13-day run.
On the first day, yachts and sailboats clustered along the docks on Weymouth Bay. Sparkling new buildings gave way to beaches and the boardwalk filled with cheering fans.
A free live site featuring two giant screens streamed the events on Weymouth Beach. The Weymouth Bayside Festival kicked off, featuring carnival rides and local food and drink.
Leading up to the games, the Weymouth Sea Life Tower, with a 360-degree view from 174 feet above the water, an interactive sports arena and a panoramic viewing area were built – all adding to what Lorraine Morris, a local tourism official, called it “one of the most unspoiled coastlines you can see.”
The waters of the Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbor have long been recognized for their low tides and clean winds.
“We’ve got the best sailing waters in northern Europe. You’ve got 50 miles of open sea,” said Jacqui Gisborne, tourism and promotion officer of the London Operations team.
The region was a major part of London’s bid for the Olympics, Morris said.
“When the Navy left (in 1999), it (the area) was fairly desolate, and one of the dreams was to replace the naval station with something that would bring Portland alive again,” Morris said. “It was just a perfect venue here. It was already holding a lot of major sailing events and it just became an obvious choice.”
Sailing has been part of the way of life here since long before the Olympics came to town.
“It really truly is a world-class sailing venue and that was opened in 2008,” Gisborne said. “We’ve had teams living and sailing in the community, though, since 2005.”
Residents have been preparing since 2005 for the games and the small seaside community had to make numerous changes, including improvements to the transportation structure and the building of accommodations for Olympic competitors and visitors.
“We’ve had over 20 years of improvements delivered in a year and a half,’’ Gisborne said. “We are a small community and the games have impacted on us a lot more than it has on other host cities. But now that the games have started, you can really hear, feel and see the excitement.”
Laura Day, a lifelong resident of Portland, said most locals are delighted with the exposure and excitement.
“It really gets our name out there, which is very exciting,” she said.
Lorna Groves, a Weymouth resident for 12 years, said she hopes the newfound interest and investments in the area continue to keep it in the spotlight.
“Give us a Disneyland here!” she said. “It’s been underdeveloped. It needs to come up with the times.”
The legacy of the games will continue; sailing events are planned in the area until 2014.
Gisborne said most area children grow up by the harbor and begin sailing at an early age.
“It’s never too young,” she said. “I know sailors who have had babies months old strapped into their chairs (on the boat).”