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Boris Gets Left Hanging, But The Joke's Rarely On London's Savvy Mayor

Some Londoners may not be much interested in sports - but one image from these Olympic Games will surely remain with them, long after the cheers and crowds have faded away. It is the spectacle of their mayor, Boris Johnson, brandishing a Union flag in either hand, dangling helplessly from a zip wire 20 feet above the ground.

His explosion of bright blonde hair is concealed by a blue safety helmet. He is wearing a dark suit that, thanks to the zipline harness, is — to paraphrase the famous slogan of an Olympic sponsor, Heineken — reaching parts that other suits usually do not.

"Get me a rope," he yells. "Get me a ladder!" A crowd of onlookers is roaring with laughter. He looks like an overgrown and rather amiable baby in a bouncer.

Barely a day passes during these games without Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - known to Londoners simply as "Boris"- somehow managing to grab the limelight in the face of enormous competition from record-breaking athletes.

Londoners are well used to this. Boris, 48, has a long record of exotic conduct. A conservative, he is regarded by many (including his enemies) as by far the most entertaining politician in Britain. Media interviewers rarely leave his office without a stash of terrific quotes, sometimes littered with literary and classical references, plus the occasional expletive deletive, and the odd scrap of Latin.

The British love eccentrics, and Boris is far more canny than his clowning suggests. This may explain why he's tipped by some among Britain's political cognescenti as a possible replacement to Prime Minister David Cameron.

On the whole, Boris is having a good games so far. As mayor, he played a pivotal role in organizing them. In the last few days, he's begun taking considerable flak from London's businesses because the capital is unusually quiet, and trade is well down.

People are blaming Boris for driving away millions of visitors by over-doing his warnings about dire overcrowding on the transport system. "Mr. Johnson must stop basking in Olympic glory - and move heaven and earth to put the capital back to work," thunders an editorial in today's Daily Mail.

But, if the Olympic Games continue to pass smoothly and peacefully, the odds are that Boris will take a big bow, and bank much of the praise.

He already seems to be winning over much of the international media, who usually relish interesting newsmakers. Much of the world was treated to extracts of Boris's passionate attempt, just before the start games, to emulate Henry Vth's Agincourt speech before a crowd at Hyde Park - including his dig at U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

So, what exactly is Boris doing, dangling from that zip wire?

He took the ride at Victoria Park, London. After zinging along smoothly, Boris came to a sudden halt - and was stranded for several minutes.

He went there to publicize the screening of Olympic events, and to persuade the public to go along and try some Olympic sports. As ever with Boris, he achieved his objective, and in typically unorthodox fashion.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.