LONDON 2012: LET THE GAMES BEGIN
-DAY ONE…The London 2012 Olympic Games begin today, kicking off with the Opening Ceremony which begins at 4p ET. The ceremony will be directed by British director Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame. Details have been kept pretty well under wraps, though the few that have emerged have left many to wonder if London's $42 million opening will live up to Beijing's $100 million spectacle four years ago. Boyle is largely expected - as the Economic Times puts it - to present "a quirky, humorous and vibrant vision of quintessential Britain, its history and future." A nod to Britain's pastoral past is expected with a whole host of live animals, as well as a nod to its rock and roll history, with a sing-along led by Sir Paul McCartney. Queen Elizabeth will officially open the games at the ceremony with the sounds of a 27-ton bell forged at the same foundry that made Big Ben.
-WHO WILL LIGHT THE CAULDRON?…The other pageantry and suspense today comes courtesy of the Olympic Torch. The last runners have completed their leg this morning, before handing off the torch to the ship Gloriana, which is carrying the torch down the River Thames to Tower Bridge. The flame will be held inside City Hall until some point during tonight's Opening Ceremony. Speculation continues about who may light the flame tonight, with possibilities running the gamut from Prince William to David Beckham.
-BELLS, BELLS & MORE BELLS
Big Ben kicked off the day's events with 40 chimes - or rather, an attempt at 40 chimes. By Ed THOMAS' count, it was more like 31. We had been warned beforehand that that too many chimes could create too much vibration for the bell to handle. It was the first time Big Ben deviated from its regular schedule since February 1952 when King George VI died. Thousands of other bells rang out at the same time across the country.
-THE FIRST LADY…First Lady Michelle Obama is in London today where she attended a breakfast with Team USA and hosted one of her signature "Let's Move" events with American military children. She'll also be at tonight's Opening Ceremony. Bill WEIR has interviewed the First Lady for Nightline.
-AS FOR THE GAMES…FIRST WORLD RECORD…The only sporting event today is the ranking rounds for men and women's archery. London 2012 has seen its first world records broken by the South Korean archery team. Im Dong-hyun, who is legally blind in one eye, set an individual record in today's ranking round. In the team event, Dong-hyun, Kim Bubmin and Oh Jin-hyek set the new mark. South Korea's archery team is regarded as the best in the world and has won 15 gold medals since 1984. There will also be press conferences for the U.S. men's basketball, water polo, cycling and triathlon teams.
-MAN CYCLES FROM CHINA TO THE OLYMPICS, ON A RICKSHAW… Give this guy a medal! It took him two years and thousands of miles but Chen Guanming travelled to England on his rickshaw, sleeping inside it along the way. His aim, he said, was to "spread the Olympic spirit."
-OLYMPIC RACCOON…Remember the octopus at the soccer World Cup? Now - thanks, Kirit RADIA, we have the Olympic raccoon. Kirit writes frm Moscow: A prophetic raccoon from Central Russia is set to predict the outcome of the Olympic events from her enclosure at the Tula zoo. Gemma the Raccoon will post predictions via a Twitter account. Apparently she correctly predicted the outcome of the EuroCup 2012 final. Here's a picture.
-SHOWDOWN IN ALEPPO…The Syrian daily paper Al Watan is warning that it will be the "mother of all battles" and, as Alex MARQUARDT writes, the regime is clearly hoping this will be a final fight against the rebels. " Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and, after that, Syria will emerge from the crisis." For their part, Syrian rebels say they will not back down in their quest to seize Aleppo, the country's commercial hub and its second-largest city. Syrian security sources quoted by Agence France-Presse say the regime's counter-offensive could occur in the city today or tomorrow. Government forces armed with tanks, helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft have been massing for several days outside Aleppo. In live video purportedly streamed this morning from Aleppo, the sound of shelling and gunfire is evident. And Al Jazeera has shown a gruesome video it says is the aftermath of shelling in an Aleppo neighborhood that killed 12 people.
-AFTER ASSAD: "COULD GET EVEN WORSE"…The former head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, Robert Mood, said Friday that President Bashar Assad's fall was only a matter of time but that his exit might not end the conflict. "Sooner or later, the regime will fall," said the Norwegian general, whose mandate to lead a 300-strong mission ended last week amid a sharp spike in violence. "The spiral of violence, the lack of proportion in the regime's reactions, its incapacity to protect the civilian population, mean that the regime's days are numbered, but will it fall in a week or in a year? That is a question I do not dare answer," he told Agence France Presse. "Many think that if Bashar Assad falls or that if he is given an honorable exit… the problem will be solved. That is an over-simplification one should be wary of…The situation could even get worse," he cautioned.
-"NERVE CENTER" TO TOPPLE ASSAD?…Reuters reports Turkey has set up a secret base with allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to direct vital military and communications aid to Syria's rebels from a city near the border, according to Gulf sources. News of the clandestine Middle East-run "nerve center" working to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad underlines the extent to which Western powers - who played a key role in unseating Muammar Gaddafi in Libya - have avoided military involvement so far in Syria. "It's the Turks who are militarily controlling it. Turkey is the main coordinator/facilitator. Think of a triangle, with Turkey at the top and Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the bottom," said a Doha-based source. "The Americans are very hands-off on this. U.S. intel(ligence) are working through middlemen. Middlemen are controlling access to weapons and routes." The center in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 100 km (60 miles) from the Syrian border, was set up after Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Saud visited Turkey and requested it, a source in the Gulf said.
-MORE DEFECTIONS…There are reports today that a Syrian legislator has fled to Turkey. She would be the first member of Syria's parliament to defect.
-RED CROSS DRAWING DOWN…There is also late word that the Red Cross is pulling some of its staff out of Damascus and moving them to Lebanon.
IRAN, ISRAEL + THE U.S.
-A CONFLICT IN THE GULF?…A Middle East expert quoted in a Washington Post piece puts the chance of an Israeli strike on Iran before November at 50/50. The piece also looks at Iran's preparations for a possible conflict: "Iran is rapidly gaining new capabilities to strike at U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, amassing an arsenal of sophisticated anti-ship missiles while expanding its fleet of fast-attack boats and submarines, U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts say. The new systems, many of them developed with foreign assistance, are giving Iran's commanders new confidence that they could quickly damage or destroy U.S. ships if hostilities erupt… Although U.S. Navy officials are convinced that they would prevail in a fight, Iran's advances have fueled concerns about U.S. vulnerabilities during the opening hours of a conflict in the gulf."
-ROMNEY: MILITARY OPTION SHOULD NOT BE RULED OUT…On the eve of his visit to Israel, in an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Mitt Romney says Iran is the biggest threat to the world, reaffirms Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and reiterates his respect for Benjamin Netanyahu.
ROMNEY IN LONDON
A day after Mitt Romney was slammed by everyone from Prime Minister David Cameron to London Mayor Boris Johnson to the British tabloids, over those comments suggesting London may not be ready to host the Olympics, he will attempt to get his trip back on track today. Romney meets with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at 10:15a ET and will attend tonight's Opening Ceremony.
IRAQ WAR: A DIFFERENT TOLL
In the first tally of its kind, a federal investigative agency calculates that at least 719 people, nearly half of them Americans, were killed working on projects to rebuild Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.
-THE NEW MRS. KIM MAY HAVE VISITED SOUTH KOREA…The Wall Street Journal reports the newly-announced wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Ri Sol Ju, may have visited South Korea in 2005 as part of a singing group. Videos and photos show a teenage girl who looks like Ri as a featured singer in a traditionally music group that attended an international track championship in Incheon. A girl named Ri Sol Jo was on the list of North Koreans in attendance, but South Korean officials are still trying to verify that the woman is Kim's wife.
-MARKING THE ARMISTICE…Observances were held today in both North and South Korea to commemorate the Korean War armistice. They are held every year, but were closely watched this year because of North Korea's military reshuffling.
SMOKING ORANGUTAN IN REHAB
The BBC reports a smoking orangutan in Indonesia has been moved into rehab to help her kick her decade-long smoking habit. Tori started smoking by mimicking humans and picking up the butts they flicked into her enclosure.
MADONNA BOOED IN PARIS
The AP reports that a small Madonna concert that the pop star said was intended to celebrate France's tolerance instead tested it, drawing boos and cries of `refund!' when she left the stage after just 45 minutes. The show Thursday, billed as an intimate event at Paris' Olympia club, was streamed live on YouTube. By Friday morning, the channel that showed the event disabled comments and had more than 12,000 dislikes compared with 10,000 likes. An invitation to tweet about the show appeared to backfire - audience members used the suggested hashtag (hash)MDNAParis to complain. The concert was announced after France's far-right National Front threatened to sue Madonna after the singer showed a video at a Bastille Day concert in Paris with an image of the party's leader with a swastika on her forehead. Videos here.
MCDONALD'S CROATIA CONTROVERSY
A McDonald's restaurant in Sibenik, Croatia, is drawing international attention after workers there reportedly continued to make and sell food after a female customer collapsed and died at the counter. Croatian newspaper 24sata reports that, despite the death of the McDonald's customer, "employees continued to work as if nothing had happened."