Forget the flame: Boris is on fire during Games

Associated Press
London Mayor Boris Johnson, center, poses for pictures with fans of Britain's, following a photo-op with London ambassadors, the volunteers working around the city to give tourists directions and information, in central London, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. After meeting Tuesday with the volunteers, Johnson firmly denied media reports that he was trying to capitalize on the goodwill churned up by the games to catapult himself into the prime minister's chair.  (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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London Mayor Boris Johnson, center, poses for pictures with fans of Britain's, following a photo-op with …

LONDON (AP) — It's hard to miss Boris Johnson at the Olympics.

London's over-the-top mayor is omnipresent, even for someone used to being the center of attention. On London's Underground network, his disembodied voice booms at commuters, urging them to "get ahead of the games" and change their travel plans. On television, his superbly uncoiffed head appears at least three times a day, spouting the most unpredictable things.

Some get him into trouble. Since the London Olympics began, he has celebrated the "semi-naked" female beach volleyball players glistening "like wet otters," and jingoistically claimed that Friday's opening ceremony "knocked the spots off Beijing."

Clearly Boris — that's right, one name, like Rihanna or Eminem — has found a forum like no other, propelling himself front and center into the lives of those who crack up at his one-liners as well as those who cringe at them.

Forget the Olympic flame — Boris is the one on fire. Mobbed like a rock star, Teflon-like in his ability to dodge every gaffe, he is having a moment so Olympian that he spends much of his time batting off speculation that his next stop is 10 Downing Street, home of the British prime minister.

"There is no doubt the Olympics play to his natural strengths as a big, jolly event," said Tony Travers, who studies the local scene from the London School of Economics. "And this is the biggest, jolliest event in a long time."

On Tuesday, Boris told the AP that if he did offend the Olympic beach volleyball players he would "repent." He suggested he was just writing too quickly in Monday's article.

Always acting somewhat befuddled, Boris plays a quintessentially British character, the erudite, upper-class buffoon. Underneath, though, lies both canniness and a common touch. His carefully disheveled shock of blond hair prompted David Letterman to suggest he might do well with a haircut. That, combined with a girth of jolly roundness, prompts comparisons to the abominable snowman — but with a very posh accent.

Johnson attended the elite Eton College boarding school and studied classics at Oxford University, where he and fellow Conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron, mingled at the Bullingdon Club, a rowdy, aristocratic drinking-and-dining society. Boris is fond of dropping little snippets of Greek into his barbs, and upstaged Placido Domingo at an Olympic gala with his bombastic recital — in ancient Greek — of an ode to the London Games.

A journalist who was a member of Parliament from 2001-2008, Johnson combines politics with book writing and television appearances. Reporters marvel at his oratory, especially when he is "on."

The head of the London organizing committee, Sebastian Coe, once quipped there was nothing worse than following Boris on the podium.

Anyone who thinks his tasteless comments are mistakes should think again: This guy is good with words.

But tasteless they can be — and racist and sexist. Years ago, he used a derogatory word for black people to describe members of the Commonwealth. He also likened his Conservative party's internal conflicts to "Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing."

In both of those cases he apologized — and not only survived, but used the mistakes to fuel his persona of authenticity.

With the Summer Games amplifying that already-overwhelming persona, the talk now is about what Boris will do next. And that discussion centers on the office of prime minister.

So far, Boris flat out denies any ambition beyond his current job, which ends in 2016.

"Everyone who knows about British politics understands that I am lashed to my oar in city hall and very, very happy to be so. It's the most wonderful job in politics," he told The Associated Press in an interview. "I'm going to be there for another four years. And that's what I want to do."

But no one in London is buying that line.

When Boris visited Olympic volunteers helping tourists in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday, 59-year-old volunteer Michael Burton was ready.

Burton was hoping the mayor would ask him for directions — so he could point the way to Downing Street, Britain's famous lane of power.

"It's straight down Whitehall," Burton said. "You carry on from there."

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