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With Olympics, London's Mayor Boris Johnson is also on stage

Olympics 2012: In Britain, Boris Johnson is a national institution, a cross between a music hall performer and an eccentric Classics teacher.

Boris Johnson the Mayor of London. Kagan McLeod for The National
Boris Johnson the Mayor of London. Kagan McLeod for The National

At the climax of the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a bemused audience of 80,000 people watched a red London bus lurch into the Bird's Nest arena followed by a shambolic figure whose thatch of blond hair appeared to be an homage to the stadium's moniker.

Wearing a suit that seemed to have been purchased for someone slightly smaller, the mayor of London - for it was he - grabbed the Olympic flag and began waving it furiously as if signalling for help. It was, as one Chinese blogger sniffily observed: "extremely casual, he did not seem to take this occasion seriously."

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - although friends and enemies rarely call him anything other than "Boris" - is frequently accused of not taking things seriously. As he once observed after being sacked as a government minister: "There are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters."

Right now, though, Boris will be hoping there are no fresh disasters. This evening he will preside over the opening of the London Olympics, an event of which the run-up has been distinguished by torrential rain, monstrous queues at Heathrow Airport and revelations that security at the Games is apparently largely in the hands of unemployed teenagers.

So this weekend, all eyes will be on London. And those that are not will probably be on Boris.

In Britain, Boris is a national institution, a cross between a music hall performer and an eccentric Classics teacher at a minor boys' private school. For the opening gala of the Games he read a newly composed ode in Ancient Greek that includes a reference to the sprinter Usain Bolt. It is an act that has pulled him out of innumerable scrapes but must now survive the unrelenting gaze of two weeks on the international stage. Opportunities for fresh disasters loom round the corner of every VIP bus lane.

Does Boris seem like a worried man? It is fair to say he does not. There is an air of indestructibility about the mayor of London. He resembles, at least outwardly, the children's toy clown that always returns to an upright position, still smiling, no matter how hard it is struck.

It helps that he has mastered that rare trick in a politician of saying what he thinks and (mostly) getting away with it. He calls himself a "one-man melting pot" - his great-grandfather was the Turkish writer and politician Ali Kemal Bey, and Boris was actually born in New York City - yet his remarks can be relentlessly politically incorrect.

"Boris says sorry" is a staple headline in the British press, whether accusing the citizens of Papua New Guinea of "orgies of cannibalism" or claiming that the English city of Portsmouth is "too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs". At the hustings in 2001 he promised male voters that "voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3".

Of the British Empire, he once said: "The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more", and yet what looks outrageous on paper is somehow disarmed by his candour and his oversized personality.

Jeremy Clarkson, the presenter of the BBC motoring show Top Gear, spotted his game after inviting Boris on the show and telling him: "Most politicians, as far as I can work out, are pretty incompetent, and then have a veneer of competence; you do seem to do it the other way around."

There is, though, a sharp edge of ruthlessness that no amount of jolly bluster or buffoonery can conceal. In 1995 it was revealed that Boris had taken a telephone call five years earlier from a convicted fraudster, Darius Guppy, who was also a chum from his days at Eton College and Oxford.

The call - recorded and later replayed in a TV investigation - revealed that Guppy was seeking the home address of Stuart Collier, a tabloid reporter who was looking into his affairs.

The transcript showed Boris seeking assurances from Guppy about the extent of the violence he was proposing to inflict on Collier, asking "how badly are you going to hurt this guy?" and after being reassured that "he will probably get a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib" apparently agreeing to hand over the information.

In the event, it appears no details were provided and the journalist remained unscathed, but the scandal almost cost Boris his job as Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, the paper he joined after being sacked from The Times of London for making up a quote. Once again he survived and thrived; becoming editor of the right-wing political magazine The Spectator within four years.

His private life also frequently falls short of the standards of survivability for most politicians. He has been married twice, with the second Mrs Boris, the barrister Marina Wheeler, bearing the brunt of serial infidelities that include allegations of fathering a child with the partner of a Canadian property billionaire (he has four children in wedlock) and overlapping affairs with two female journalists, including a claim from the mother of one of them that she had an abortion.

Boris denied this latter dalliance in typical fashion, calling it "complete balderdash" and "an inverted pyramid of piffle". By now, he had left journalism for politics, having been elected as a Conservative MP in 2001 and becoming the opposition spokesman on the arts. This time no amount of hyperbole could save him. He was sacked by the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, not for the affair, but for lying about it.

And yet - boing! - Boris bounced back. A year later, the Conservative party elected David Cameron as its leader. Cameron, a distant cousin and, like Boris, an old Etonian and a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club for dissolute Oxford toffs, appointed him the shadow minister for higher education.

Three years later, and with London now the host city for the 2012 Games, Boris announced he would be in the running to be the city's mayor. In the 2008 election, he narrowly and unexpectedly defeated another political maverick, the left wing Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone. In May, Boris won a second term, defeating Livingstone again, this time by a wider margin.

The experience of City Hall seems to have pushed Boris back towards the political mainstream as well as moderating some of his more excessive statements. In the wake of the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, he claimed that Islamophobia was "a natural reaction" and that it was "the most viciously sectarian of all religions".

Four years later, and representing a city whose population included an estimated one million Muslim voters, he had accepted that Islam was "a religion of peace," urging people "particularly during Ramadan to find out more about Islam, increase your understanding … even fast for a day with your Muslim neighbour and break your fast at the local mosque".

More than halfway through his latest job and with three years still to come, it looks as if Boris, now 48, must now begin to come to terms with his political legacy. As mayor of London, he has fired an unpopular police commissioner, banned alcohol on public transport and established himself as the city's champion. A keen cyclist, he is probably most proud of the network of 8,000 shared bicycles for hire known popularly as "Boris Bikes".

Beyond that, he has established his own brand of popular conservatism and a reputation for telling it like it is. "Like all politicians, he is sometimes required to talk anodyne or disingenuous rot," TheSpectator columnist Rod Liddle has observed. "But unlike the remainder, he cannot keep a straight face while doing this."

How far this will take him beyond the Olympics and City Hall is unclear. The obvious path leads to higher office, except that with Boris, every path is littered with banana skins and nothing is ever obvious.

But at least he understands his failings. As he once remarked: "I have as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being decapitated by a frisbee or of finding Elvis reincarnated."

The Biog

June 19, 1964 Born in New York City to Stanley Johnson, an environmentalist and politician, and Charlotte, a painter

1983 After Eton, studies Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, and joins notorious Bullingdon Club

1986 Abandons career in management consulting because ”I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix and stay conscious”.

1987 Joins The Daily Telegraph after being sacked from The Times; divorces first wife, Allegra, and marries barrister Marina Wheeler

2001 Becomes the Conservative Member of Parliament for Henley

2004 Sacked as shadow arts spokesman for lying about an extramarital affair

2008 Elected mayor of London

May 2012 Re-elected mayor of London