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Young royals take centre stage at London Olympics

Saturday, March 17, 2012    

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LONDON, England (AP) — You can't hold the London Olympics without the British royals, now can you? The two have been intertwined over the years like the Olympic rings themselves.

At the London Games this summer, they'll be everywhere — Wills and Kate, Harry and Zara, the queen and Prince Philip — posing, pronouncing, maybe even participating.

These games will showcase a whole new royal generation: the elegant Duchess of Cambridge, whose fairy-tale wedding last year was watched by hundreds of millions; the irrepressible Prince Harry, at 27 one of the world's most eligible bachelors; and another one of Queen Elizabeth II's grandchildren, Zara Phillips, who is seeking a berth on the British equestrian team just like both her parents did years ago.

Prince William, his wife Kate and Harry will all be Olympic ambassadors. It's not clear what any of the royals will actually be doing or where they will be appearing, but British officials and tourism experts consider their presence vital.

"They're great for attracting publicity," said Joe Little, the managing editor of Majesty magazine. "Everybody wants to see the Duchess of Cambridge... it's the youth-and-glamour thing."

Visit Britain says some 30 million people come to the country each year to see its cultural heritage — such as Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard and the Beefeaters at the Tower of London.

Britain's culture and heritage sites bring in £4.5 billion ($7 billion) of the £17 billion ($26.6 billion) spent by overseas visitors annually. This being an Olympic year — and the queen's 60th Jubilee anniversary to boot — the focus on UK palaces and royals will be magnified.

To make the most of things, the monarch plans to open Buckingham Palace to accommodate Olympic activities.

A tourism promotion is being launched to coincide with the July 27-August 12 games: the GREAT campaign, as in Great Britain. It hopes to capitalise on the Olympic excitement and bring an extra £2 billion ($1.5 billion) of tourism spending into Britain's beleaguered economy.

Prince Henry (always known as Prince Harry) did his bit to build excitement last week in Jamaica, donning a jersey emblazoned with Jamaica's green, black and gold colors and clowning around with 100-metre champion Usain Bolt. They joked and "raced" one another, meeting on the track to strike a mock lightning bolt pose, Bolt's signature.

"I am not directly involved in the (Olympic) organisation, otherwise who knows what might happen?" the helicopter pilot-trainee prince joked. "If work permits me, I will definitely get the chance, hopefully, to visit as many events as possible," said Harry.

The royals and the Olympics have long been intertwined, going back to a time when only the very rich could afford to train and remain amateurs.

London took on the Olympics for the first time in 1908, after Mount Vesuvius erupted in Rome, forcing Italy to pull out. King Edward VII lobbied for Britain to host those games, playing a key role in persuading the government to accept the task at a time when the Olympics were largely unknown.

London next hosted the games in 1948, with King George VI presiding as the Olympic flag was raised for the first time since the end of World War II.

At the time, the royals were more famous than the games themselves. Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, who won four gold medals in 1948 in track and field, told of her disappointment upon hearing the British national anthem after a close race with a British competitor. Blankers-Koen thought she'd lost — but actually it was just the royal family entering the stadium to take their seats, Polley said.

Queen Elizabeth II will open this summer's games, like her father and great-grandfather once did. She is not new to the job, opening the Montreal Olympics in 1976, where her daughter Princess Anne competed with her horse, Goodwill.

Anne, a member of the 2012 London organising committee, remembers her Olympic experience fondly, even though she did fall off Goodwill.

"It proved something... in your sporting experience," she said in a BBC interview. "For the old dinosaurs, the amateurs like me, I think that was a rare treat."

The whole royal family showed up to watch her in Montreal — a scenario likely to be repeated this summer in London if Anne's 30-year-old daughter Zara makes the team. She had been named to the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing but her horse became injured before the games and could not compete.

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