London Games already packed with history, thanks to its host of iconic venues

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

LONDON – Maybe it's because they decided to have a cycling race that essentially circled their current (Clarence House) and future (Buckingham Palace) residences. Or maybe the excitement over the 2012 Summer Olympics has taken hold of truly every last Brit.

All I know is that as I walked near the Mall -- the famed ceremonial route of London -- early on a perfect Saturday morning, who should stroll up but Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.

They watched the start of the 250-kilometer race and were headed back to Clarence House, which is just a few steps away. Aside from Charles's sharp gray suit, they looked like any other couple of fans walking about on the first day of the Games. Fans with security, of course.

[ Photos: VIPs at the Opening Ceremony ]

A television reporter was so startled at their sudden arrival she broke immediately into a full report, staring into a camera and describing the scene of royalty among the commoners.

Charles, a far more dignified presence than back in his occasionally awkward Diana years, looked at her inquisitively and let out a laugh.

"Amazing what you can do ad-libbing," he said to no one in particular.

The future king of England was soon gone, but the buzz and the lesson remained: There's no telling what you might see over these couple of weeks, and world records, gold medals, and brilliant comebacks are just half of it.

London is a city steeped in history, full of remarkable pageantry and home to all sorts of pomp and circumstance. In setting up these Games, the organizing committee did as much as it could to use that not just as a backdrop, but also as a central force of the event.

They did it by staging as many of the competitions as possible in historic and spectacular venues, rather than just in modern but lifeless constructs. Yes, the Olympic Park -- home to a huge stadium, Aquatics Centre, and Basketball Arena -- is new. So much of the rest is profoundly not, and presents a chance to cash in on this ancient yet diverse-and-bustling metropolis and avoid a rash of empty and expensive stadiums once the torch gets snuffed out.

[ Photos: London 2012 Opening Ceremony ]

Besides, if you can run a bike race along a majestic Mall and around the ornate home of the queen, with Big Ben looking down from the near distance, you do it. And London has done it like few Olympic Games ever.

You want old school? Forget Fenway Park and consider Greenwich Park, a 183-acre hilltop expanse with a view of the Thames River, home to the Royal Observatory, and the birthplace of Henry VIII. It’s been used since either 1427 or 1433 or, well, does it matter? It's almost 600 years young.

You want something more historic in terms of sports? Well, tennis is merely being played at Wimbledon, the most famous spot in the sport and a thrill for the many competitors from around the globe who wouldn't qualify for the professional tournament there.

Archery has taken over Lord's Cricket Ground, sacred land in that sport dating back to 1812, complete with brilliant brick grandstands, its own museum, and a small urn of ashes that England and Australia battle over. Yes, ashes.

Back in 1852, Australia defeated Great Britain for the first time, leading to a mock obituary appearing in The Sporting Times declaring the death of English cricket (apparently the press has always been snarky over here). Soon, the Australians said they’d cremate the body and take the ashes back home. A couple of bails from that game were burned as symbolic ashes and put in this little three-inch cup, and now the teams hold it aloft after victory. It's like a tiny Stanley Cup.

"The holy grail," said British cricket fan Chris Dinwoodie as he toured the museum with his family before watching some archery.

[ Related: What to watch for: Olympics first weekend ]

And don't think everything is formal. To honor the archers, five friends walked into Lord’s Cricket Ground Monday in green Robin Hood costumes, although they feared they looked more like Peter Pan. And out on the Mall earlier, there was a group of Mexican television reporters including one in clown attire.

So not all of it makes perfect sense. And not all will. London today is a melting pot of cultures, the crossroads of the world and proud of it. So why not generate the odd mix of beach volleyball with the Horse Guards Parade, a magnificent structure and home to one of the ceremonial changing of the guards that includes stone-faced soldiers in ancient outfits.

On Saturday, during the 11 a.m. changing, just as one row of horse-bound men lined up silently across from the other, the rowdy roar of the crowd washed over the building. The guards had no comment.

Of course, maybe this wasn't always such a serious thing. The legend of the changing of the guard is that Queen Victoria came home one day and found her soldiers sleeping or drunk. As a way of punishment, she ordered them to perform the ritual every day for 100 years.

As the Brits are prone to do, they’ve kept doing it even after the century-long sentence expired.

The proximity of some of the venues to important points in world development should allow sports fans and history buffs to multitask.

Within steps of competition, you can check out the war room from which Winston Churchill plotted the liberation of Europe, check out the chapel of St. John the Baptist, stop by 10 Downing Street or Parliament, make like a Beatle and cross Abbey Road, and, of course, take part in the most memorable British moment ever.

[ Related: Danny Boyle orchestrates a very British Opening Ceremony ]

That's right. You can plot out the route inside Westminster Abbey, where Kate Middleton (with Pippa trailing) managed her bridal procession. Nothing bigger than that, right?

From some venues, you can hear the bells of Westminster Abbey ring. The queen's church was built in 960, and that’s not a typo -- the joint is in its third millennium.

Among the myriad of royals enshrined there is the original Queen Mary, who was executed in 1558 in a dispute with Queen Elizabeth. For either her death, the religious persecution of the day, or both, she was remembered as "Bloody Mary," spawning the name for a drink that no self-respecting British pub couldn't proudly whip up in a moment's notice.

So if the marathoners need to say a pre-race prayer, the church is just a short warm-up jog from the starting line, which is in front of a small structure called Buckingham Palace.

Maybe they’ll run into the future king. Or Kate.

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