- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

LONDON | With 6.6 million tickets up for sale and a giant clock ticking down the 500 days until the opening ceremony, two Olympic superstars came to London on Tuesday to help celebrate the countdown to the 2012 Summer Games.

Nine-time track and field gold medalist Carl Lewis and five-time gymnastics champion Nadia Comaneci joined London Olympic organizing committee leader Sebastian Coe — a former Olympian — for a series of events across the capital.

“It’s happening,” said Lewis, the American sprinter and long jumper who competed in four Olympics. “It’s wonderful to get the bid. It’s wonderful to know what’s coming. But today you can actually start your opportunity to be a part of it.”

Tuesday marked the first chance for fans to apply for tickets to the 645 competition sessions across 26 sports, with prices ranging from $32 for some events to $1,200 for the men’s 100-meter final.

Comaneci, the Romanian who scored the first perfect 10.0 in modern Olympic history when she won three golds at the 1976 Montreal Games at age 14, said she looks forward to coming back next year to watch the gymnastics and soak up the atmosphere.

“I always say when the Olympics are happening, you shouldn’t be in any other place in the planet — you should be here,” Comaneci said.

The buildup to the opening ceremony on July 27, 2012, comes with Olympic venues being completed on time and on budget. Britain is spending $15 billion to build new venues and turn an industrial wasteland in east London into a vast Olympic Park.

“This isn’t the finishing straight, but we’re in the back straight of the 800,” said Coe, a former 800-meter record holder who also won two Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 meters.

The top seats for the opening ceremony go for $3,215. Organizers braced for a crush of demand on the online site, even though the tickets are not being sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

Customers can apply for tickets over a six-week period ending April 26, with no advantage to signing up early. Any oversubscribed tickets will be distributed via a ballot, or lottery, system. Tickets will be allocated by June 24.

The first glitch arose a few hours into the ticket launch, when fans with Visa credit cards that expire before the end of August found they were unable to process their orders. Visa is an Olympic sponsor and the only card that can be used to purchase tickets.

“It is an issue with Visa rather than the website or our systems,” officials of London 2012 said.

While demand will be huge for the 100-meter final, Lewis urged fans to consider buying tickets to some of the lower-profile events.

“I’ve been to four Olympic Games since I retired,” he said. “Every time I’ve gone to two new sports that I’ve never seen before. I think it’s a unique opportunity to go see team handball or badminton or volleyball. It gives you the opportunity to experience something else. You may end up watching badminton so much you may end up taking up the sport yourself.”

Organizers are promising packed venues and enthusiastic crowds.

“The athletes enjoy the full stands,” Lewis said. “I remember in Los Angeles in the 100 heats there were 93,000 people there. It makes a huge difference, especially for the home country. It creates a sense of pride.”

Lewis donned a yellow construction hat and jacket to tour the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium where the track and field events will be contested in 2012. Lewis won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, successfully defended his 100-meter title in Seoul in 1988 after Ben Johnson was stripped of the title for doping and won the long jump for a fourth straight time at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

“I’m a long jumper that sprinted,” Lewis said. “Everyone says ‘fastest man in the world.’ Yeah, I was that, too. I was able to win four in a row in the long jump. I take the most pride in that. To come back and be the first one to actually win back-to-back and then do it four times, it was just tremendous.”

The sport’s greatest athlete since Lewis is Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who swept the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in world-record times. A year later, Bolt again set world records in the 100 and 200 at the world championships in Berlin.

Can Bolt defend his Olympic titles in London?

“The opportunity is there,” Lewis said. “It’s very, very difficult, as I know, to win back-to-back at the Olympics. So many things have to happen for you to win once, let alone twice, so good luck to him.”

But Lewis is cheering for American sprinter Tyson Gay, who beat Bolt in Stockholm last year and has the second fastest time ever in the 100 (9.69 seconds) behind the Jamaican’s 9.58.

“I think its going to be a tremendous race,” Lewis said. “I went to two Olympic finals and you never know what’s going to happen. Usain has run tremendously. He’s the best in the world right now, but Tyson’s going to give him a run for his money.”

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