London's mayor scores Olympic notoriety gold

Boris Johnson, London's mop-haired, shambolic mayor, may emerge as the biggest winner of the 2012 Summer Olympics if the early days of the high-profile international event in Britain are any indication.

New poll finds Boris Johnson most attractive Conservative successor to PM

London Mayor Boris Johnson rides the Airline cable car that links North Greenwich Peninsula and the Albert Docks in east London on June 27. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

London's mop-haired, shambolic mayor may emerge as the biggest winner of the 2012 Summer Olympics if the early days of the high-profile international event in Britain are any indication.

Boris Johnson has long been seen in some quarters of the Conservative Party as a badly concealed oddball. But with the global spotlight firmly affixed on the city he has governed since 2008, Johnson's political star is rising.

So far, London's transit system has been holding up under the strain from throngs of Olympic watchers descending on the city. The opening ceremonies were well received, and security concerns leading up to the Games have yet to give way to a major incident.

As well, Johnson's larger-than-life personality has been splashed all over the global event, raising his profile and boosting his popularity.

On Monday, the Independent newspaper even carried a poll of Conservative Party members that found Johnson was the party's most attractive successor to Prime Minister David Cameron.

The right-wing Mail on Sunday lauded Johnson as the ultimate political exemplar of "a nation unafraid to take risks or laugh at itself," while the centrist Independent sees "the beginnings of a Churchillian stature" in Johnson, saying he has a personality that "will summon him to greatness" should a crisis erupt.

The 48-year-old mayor has played down concerns over empty seats at venues, and brushed aside criticism that the Olympic flame is out of view for the general public — the flame is housed in the Olympic Stadium, and a ticket is needed in order to see it.

Even when things go embarrassingly wrong he has found ways to cope. At an Olympic event on Wednesday, Johnson led a cheer for the British national rowing team after he was left dangling from a zipline 20 metres above the ground. He was rescued after about five minutes.

Last week, Johson made headlines by calling out Mitt Romney in front of 60,000 people, after the U.S. Republican presidential candidate said in London that there were a few "disconcerting" things about the Olympic preparations.

Not only is the city ready, Johnson retorted to roars from the crowd, but Britain's Olympic team will bring home "more gold, silver, bronze medals than you'd need to bail out Greece and Spain together."

Such colourful tidbits are typical of the mayor. But Johnson tends to brush off notions that he has gained the popularity of a rock star in London, or that he holds prime ministerial ambitions.

"What you're seeing there is the unbelievable jubilation the torch is causing," Johnson said in a recent interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge. "A simple flame is causing quite incoherent and baffling outbreaks of joy wherever it goes."

In an interview with American late-night talk-show host David Letterman last month, Johnson went further, saying his chances of being elected to the country's top political office were about equal to that "of being reincarnated as an olive."

But it seems Johnson's unique mix of qualities – simultaneously posh and unpolished, capable of mind-boggling erudition one moment and the most crowd-pleasing barb the next – have touched a popular nerve.

Who is Boris?

Johnson, who is Eton- and Oxford-educated and rides his bike to work, has been described by his biographer as "a posh boy with a common touch."

What would a country run by him look like? For one thing, he would likely take a stronger stance against financial and political integration to save the euro — an approach he says is "like seeing a driver heading full-tilt for a brick wall, and then telling them to hit the accelerator rather than the brake."

But it remains to be seen whether Johnson's gaffe-prone manner and past controversies will derail whatever political ambitions he holds.

He has a history of alleged marital infidelity, to the point that online dating service Ashley Madison used his image in a billboard ad last year promoting extramarital affairs. Johnson's office reportedly sought legal advice over the incident.

And despite his intellect, Johnson's way with words has occasionally landed him in trouble. He was once forced to apologize to the entire city of Liverpool after accusing its residents of "wallowing" in victimhood.

Regardless of whether he hopes to follow in Cameron's footsteps, for the time being, Johnson is occupied with promoting the London Games to the best of his eccentric abilities.

On Monday, he wrote a newspaper column that contained a few signature gems.

"As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto," Johnson wrote.

"They are glistening like wet otters… The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers."

With files from The Associated Press