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Olympic party: In the shadow of the Games, London celebrates

Jim Seida / NBC News

Olympic Stadium can be seen in the background as partygoers watch the opening ceremonies on a massive LCD screen in East London.

Updated at 8:45 p.m. ET: STRATFORD, East London – For billions of people watching around the world, Friday night’s 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony signaled the start of two weeks of sporting excitement.

But for nearby residents just outside the main Olympic Park — within earshot of the spectacular show, but separated by 11 miles of electric fence — the celebrations also marked the end of seven years of planning and redevelopment which has transformed the local area and made an impact on many lives.


Tens of thousands gathered in parks to watch the ceremony on giant screens, or hosted parties in apartments and backyards in the shadow of the stadium. Cheers erupted when British cycling hero Bradley Wiggins rang the bell to begin the display.

“For people living in this area, the Olympics isn’t just about these two weeks — they’ve been living with the anticipation and excitement for years — as well as the noise and disruption,” said Stephen McVeigh, deputy head of residential property at Genesis Housing, whose 700-home development includes a 43-story tower, Stratford Halo, under construction yards from the Games.

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“It is incredible, but also a bit strange, to be so close to the excitement and the action, yet still watching on television.”

As McVeigh spoke to NBC News, the Royal Air Force display team — the Red Arrows — roared overhead, coating the urban skyline in red, white and blue trails that drew a huge cheer from nearby streets.

Although the tower is unfinished, workers and corporate guests gathered on the 38th floor from where the view included a section inside the stadium.

Jim Seida / NBC News

Workers and corporate guests watch the opening ceremonies from the 38th floor of Stratford Halo, a 43 story-housing tower still under development in Stratford, London, only a mile from Olympic Park.

Across the River Lea, southwest of the stadium in an industrial zone that has witnessed decades of decline, one local furniture factory decided to make the most of the event by clearing its workspace and yard and converting them into a giant temporary nightclub and bar complex called Fringe 2012.

Jim Seida / NBC News

A bartender pours a customer a glass of wine at one of the many bars in Fringe 2012, a factory turned nightclub just for the Games, on Friday in East London.

Inside, with the music from the ceremony drifting across the river, revelers who had paid up to 25 pounds ($39) cheered their favorite points in the ceremony — including the appearance of live cows and comic actor Rowan Atkinson (best known in America as Mr. Bean) — and joined the stadium crowd in singing the National Anthem, "God Save The Queen."

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“We decided this was a better business plan so we applied for a (liquor) license and put a giant screen and turned it into a place for people to feel part of the Olympic experience even if they couldn’t be in the ceremony or get tickets for the events," said Steve Black, whose family has made sofas on the site for generations.

Jim Seida / NBC News

Partygoers watch the opening ceremonies on a massive LCD screen at Fringe 2012.

“Hopefully this will change the area for good — this all used to be factories but soon it will be bars, restaurants, galleries," he said. "It’s a celebration for the area as much as for the opening of the Olympic Games.”

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Thousands packed into Victoria Park, about two miles west of the stadium, to watch the ceremony on big screens.

There was an ironic cheer when it began to rain, but the best reaction of the night came when a comedy skit depicted The Queen alongside James Bond actor Daniel Craig.

A major part of the show was an homage to the U.K.’s National Health Service, with nurses dancing and hospital beds arranged to spell out NHS and GOSH, for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

There was applause as performers, many of whom work for the NHS, passed through Stratford subway station still dressed in their stylized uniforms.

Christalene Alaart, originally from South Africa but now living in London and working at the NHS Royal Free Hospital, told NBC News that it had been “quite exciting, knowing there’s 3 billion people whose eyes would be on us, and 80,000 in the stadium.”

She added that her mother had been to see a rehearsal. “She was in tears, overwhelmed with what she saw, also that fact she was there and part of it,” Alaart said.

New Zealander Carina Burgess, 26, an NHS pharmacist in London, said it was “pretty cool to be given that much credit, for a whole segment to be dedicated to the NHS.”

And Annmarie Badchkam, 36, a midwife at London’s Homerton Hospital, said “it was definitely amazing ... thanks to Danny Boyle, it was an amazing experience.”

Dikaia Chatziefstathiou, an academic and expert on the Olympics at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, was among the dancers for part of the show featuring music from the 1980s and 1990s.

“It was extraordinary experience,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or actually part of it.”

She said she regarded herself as a “critical friend” of the Olympics but said taking part in the ceremony had reminded her that the Games was a “big festival … a great festival.”

Professional opera singer Elinor Jane Moran, 31, from London, was among those dancing to current British hip hop music in the show – something she’d never done before and learned during the rehearsals.

She enthusiastically related how she had shaken hands with U.K. hip hop star Dizzee Rascal as he came on stage in an unscripted moment.

“I thought it was extraordinary,” she said of the show, “particularly the Industrial Revolution section and also the nurses were just wonderful.”

“The energy, the passion, was just extraordinary, I thought,” Moran added. “We’re very proud of it, very, very proud of it.”

Spectators were sporting flags from all over the world, from Australia to Brazil, Japan to Canada.

Yulia Semakima, 25, from Omsk, in Russia, who is studying law in London, was among those caught up in the mood of the moment.

“I’m not a big fan (of the Olympics), but now I feel like I’m becoming more and more enthusiastic about it,” she said, dressed in a Russia shirt and cap.

“I think we will be third (in the medal table) after China and then the U.S. I hope we can beat France and Germany,” she added.

Referring to a considerable amount of typically British moaning in the months ahead of the Games, she could not understand why Londoners did not seem “really to be impressed with this.”

One Briton who was definitely enjoying the Games was Lucy Chisholm, 44, from Twickenham, London, who was wearing British flags in her hair, on her T-shirt and had one painted on her cheek.

“I feel very patriotic at the moment. With everything that’s been going on in Britain, it’s been fantastic. We’ve had the (Queen’s) Jubilee and that really brought people together,” she said.

Chisholm said she hoped anyone who had complained about the Olympics “haven’t got tickets,” adding, “We’ve had so much moaning, but that’s what Britons do, isn’t it. Everybody should get together and embrace it.”

Jamaica supporter Richard Woodburn, 32, from London’s East End, was wearing a Jamaica sports shirt and proudly showed a picture on his cellphone of his house bedecked with Jamaican flags.

“They (Jamaica) are going to clean up in the athletics — 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 400 meters relay, men and women,” he said.

“The Games are here — just enjoy it. There’s so many people enjoying it,” he said gesturing to the crowd of thousands around him. “Just run with it.”

Mark Townsend, 46, who was born in Britain, grew up in Canada and whose wife Mariko is from Japan, was similarly upbeat, saying he hoped the Games slogan of “Inspire a Generation” would come true for his children, age 11 and 5.

“My 11-year-old daughter is going to play (soccer) for Canada, Japan or Britain,” he said.

Paul Meikle, a cub scout leader from Castle Rock, Northern Ireland, with a group of more than 40 cub scouts, explorers and adults, said the beginning of the Opening Ceremony was “really, really good” and “well put together.”

He welcomed the decision to start the ceremony with songs from the four parts of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales — saying it was “inclusive of everyone.”

“It’s really, really exciting to be here,” Meikle said. “We’ve come across to spend the first couple of days of the events here.”

He said the scouts planned to watch the cycling road race Saturday, with Britain’s Mark Cavendish among the favorites to win.

At Forman’s Smokehouse, a family-run fish processing company that was forced to relocate to make way for the Olympic Park, managers transformed the forecourt into a spectacular temporary beach-themed bar complete with beach volleyball court, palm trees and champagne counter.

Jim Seida / NBC News

Anna Celeste Walters, left, has a toast with her friends Amy Loudon, center, and Alex Sinclair. They were three of about a thousand people who celebrated the opening ceremonies at Forman's Smokehouse, a family-run fish processing company in East London.

When Sir Paul McCartney performed "Hey Jude," the crowd mirrored those inside the stadium by singing along with their hands in the air.

“London is so buzzing at the moment, and the atmosphere here is incredible,” said Amy Loudon, 25, who traveled across London with her friends Anna Celeste Walters and Alex Sinclair to party nearer the Olympic site. “People seem to be in a much better mood now, after all the moaning.”

Gary Bott, 31, a construction worker, traveled two hours from the city of Cambridge in order to celebrate in London. He was unable to get into the public screening at Victoria Park because it was too crowded.

“It’s much better to be closer to the action, even if we’re watching on a screen,” he said. “There ceremony made us really proud to be British.”

Paco Lima, a 35-year-old soldier from Mexico, was also soaking up the atmosphere at Forman’s — and cheering on his country when Mexican athletes joined the parade.

“The ceremony was great — like a Hollywood production,” he said.

Among those performing in the spectacular show was dance student Jack Ludwig, 22. He told NBC News before the ceremony began: “I don’t think I’ll ever get to do anything like this in my lifetime again, so to be part of it is incredible.

“During rehearsals I was looking up at various spots in the crowd and thinking ‘that’s where the Queen will be sitting, that’s where all the world leaders will be.'”

NBC News' Jim Seida contributed to this report.

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