London 2012 Olympics sets the standard for a generation
The 2012 London Games was the extravaganza nobody seemed to want and finished as the event that redefined a nation. With a ruling class that seems recalcitrant to engage in Europe, it’s ironic that it was waves of foreign athletes and a flow of tourists to bring about a sustained outpouring of unity and exhilaration.
The British medal haul helped. There were 65 of them, 29 of the baubles shine gold. That was a better collection than Beijing.
The British media - so quick to underscore farcical lapses in security and organisation - hyped the performance. It was the best collection since 1908, the public was informed.
But look more deeply; back then only 22 nations took part and there were just over 2,000 athletes.
For London 2012, 204 countries sent more than 10,000 competitors.
It was an exceptional effort by the British athletes. And it might reconfigure the attitudes to how British sportsman look at themselves.
Chris Hoy, the British cyclist, said that the tally of golds was forcing the rethink.
“I think the Brits historically have got used to being the plucky losers. The attitude has been we'll support our lads and our lasses but we don't expect them to win anything. The teams go to the world cup in football and there are the usual tales of woe – losing penalty shoot-outs. It's like inevitable that the Brits are going to get beaten at some point. But I think that's there's a change in that culture in sport.”
Hoy, who has won six gold medals and a silver since the Sydney Games in 2000, added: “You now have a group of athletes who only have seen Athens and Beijing and to them being part of the British team means you are part of a winning team.
“We got fourth place in the medals table in Beijing and that was way beyond our expectations. We've come third this time in London and everybody is enjoying it. As an athlete you feed off that enthusiasm and that energy and the whole nation is proud of what we've achieved as a team.'
Victoria Pendleton, who won gold and silver in her cycling events in London, spoke of her relief as she retired from track competition. “I won't ever don a skin suit again which I won't miss entirely. When I came into the team in 2001, I came into a team full of world and Olympic champions and there was only one thing they were expecting of me and that was to emulate what the guys had already achieved or more.
“Everybody coming into the team knows that they are considered podium potential. You are not on the team unless you are winning medals and it's tough. I can't do it any more, she said.
“It's difficult to maintain those high standards – year after year after year. And when I win a bronze medal at the world championshps, it's like the world has fallen apart. Disastrous. It's tough really tough. I think the expectation drives us and keeps us there for fear of falling from the heights.”
The British participants were buoyed by raucous partisan support that helped them outstrip their perceived limits. But the positivity was shared out.
Dee Dee Trotter, the American 400 metres runner, remarked: “London is off the chain and that is putting it mildly. I have never seen a morning session packed out that way. I’ve never been in a stadium where people have every knowledge of what’s going on. It could be field, it could be track. They know what’s going on.
“They support every athlete no matter what country they’re from. They’ve been a phenomenal group of spectators and fans.
“You can’t walk through the train station without them hugging you, giving you high fives or just congratulating you on just being you. You don’t have to have a medal. If they knew you were an athlete they were really supportive and they just made it a spectacular event. Was it chaos? Yes. Was it good chaos? Absolutely.”
Such eloquence might seem the correct ambassadorial form. But 29-year-old Trotter is renowned as one of the most outspoken American athletes. She would be just as happy to denounce ineptitude as laud excellence.
Of course the tone for the games was set at a perfect pitch. Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder launched the fortnight with a show that highlighted the quirks and bumps of Britain throughout the ages. Bucolic idylls, garish industrial landscapes, jingoistic wars and the influx from the former British colonies.
So many of the British medallists are the direct descendants of those who came over on the boats from the Caribbean islands and Africa.
When one impertinent journalist asked distance runner Mo Farah if he might have competed for Somalia, the reply was: “Look mate, I’m British.”
And he provided the Olympic Stadium with two of its best Saturday nights. On August 4, he claimed the 10,000m gold as Jessica Ennis won the women’s heptathlon and Greg Rutherford took the men’s long jump.
On August 11, Farah edged the 5,000 metres. Most of the men he beat that balmy evening had all registered faster times than him in 2012. But they were seemingly running into a wall of sound that would allow only one man over.
Farah acknowledged the role of the crowd: “I’m sure if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have done it twice,” he said of the victory that moved him into a pantheon of six other runners who have won the 5,000 and 10,000 at the same games.
Only the over 70s will remember Emil Zatopek but there was Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976 as well as Keninisa Bekelele.
“The crowd was inspiring for sure,” Farah added. “If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have dug in so deep. The noise just got louder and louder and louder. It reminded me of when you go to a football match and somebody scores a goal. That’s how loud it was. It was like wow.”
Thanks for that Mo because “like wow” epitomises Usain Bolt. Baron Pierre de Courbetin may have bequeathed the world the modern Olympic movement. But Usain St Leo Bolt of the parish of Trelawny has reconstructed the model of star appeal within the Games.
He electrified the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing as he won golds in the 100 and 200 metres and then joined up with his team mates to win the 4x100 metres relay.
In London Bolt styled himself as a living legend after becoming the first man to defend the 100 and 200 metres titles. The fact that he also landed the 4x100 metres relay in 2012 as well seems to have been lost in the mist of superlatives.
Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee – the outfit that organises the games – initially took issue with Bolt’s self-assessment suggesting that the Jamaican should wait until the end of his career before conferring such loftiness upon himself.
Bolt was less than amused. "What else do I need to do to prove myself as a legend?” he wondered after gold medal number six. “I've won the 100 and 200m twice at the Olympics.
I've won world championship gold medals. I've broken world records many times so I don't know what else to do really. When next time you see him [Rogge] I think you should ask him what Usain needs to do because I don't know what else to do really."
Perhaps in the corridors of IOC, the fear was that Bolt is becoming bigger than the Games. Rogge eventually relented conceding that Bolt was an active performance legend. “He is an icon,” Rogge added. “He is the best sprinter of all time."
And certainly he has become a concept on the back of his heroics in Beijing and London.
But really Rogge should never have been discussing such technicalities.
Only Bolt could stay behind after a medal ceremony and orchestrate the crowd in a Mexican wave. Only he could borrow a mate’s victory dance at the height of his own glory and then pose for the picture of the Games: Mo Farah doing Bolt’s bowman stance and Bolt doing the Mobot – using the arms to form an ‘m’ over the head. They’re two very unlikely pals but on one Saturday night in August their different skills – one explosive, one enduring, emerged triumphant. Their affection and joy brought an impromptu skit that was beamed throughout the world.
It was the gold medal moment of the 2012 Olympic Games: a home grown talent newly anointed among the greats and another who strides alone in another dimension. Olympic marketing men must have been leaping the high hurdles for the freshness of the images which chimed with the organisers' desire for the Games to inspire a generation.
It will be instructive to see how Farah copes with the success and as to how Bolt exploits his power and preeminence over the next year or so. His stated aim is to be chilling out somewhere in a few years with some money coming in from a few sources. He’ll certainly never need to worry about food. Bolt – after revealing that chicken McNuggets and a chicken wrap were taken before his feats of sprinting - will be able to dine on the house in any McDonalds in the world for the foreseeable future.
But as he fades as an athletic force it will be fascinating to see who has the frame to take over the fame game. There will be champions but with enough personality to dominate two Olympic Games? That race is definitely on. Likewise the charge to maximise interest in sports in Britain following the Games.
Cycling clubs are reporting heightened interest from youngsters keen to emulate track heroes such as Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny. And it wasn’t as if cycling had a low profile after the success of Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France.
Usain Bolt though is just as likely to inspire a generation in any country. So too Michael Phelps. He won eight golds in Beijing. In London the total was a modest four with two silvers.
He went into the Olympic sunset at the age of 27 with 22 Olympic medals 18 golds, two silvers and two bronze. He is the most decorated Olympian but as he contemplated seeing the sport from the other side, he said the youngsters coming through would easily fill the shoes of the seniors.
A few in the United States squad made a splash in London. Seventeen year old Missy Franklin won four golds and a bronze while 15-year-old Katie Ledecky took the 800 metres freestyle. Phelps anointed the South African Chad le Clos as the next big thing among the men.
They’ll receive their chance to fulfil their promise in 2016 in Rio. Brazilian organisers gave the world a foretaste of their likely opening bash during the handover segment of the closing ceremony. It featured glittery costumes and infectious rhythms. Curiously there was no mention of football. That omission might have had something to do with the loss the men suffered in the final the previous night.
The music, dance and quick nod to the various cultures that have merged to form the South American powerhouse were warmly welcomed by a stadium that had feasted on a symphony of British music from the past 50 years.
Ray Davies, from the Kinks started the show off with a rendition of Waterloo Sunset and it continued with performances from George Michael, Annie Lennox, Elbow, Muse and Queen.
In contrast to Boyle’s message montage in the opening extravaganza, Kim Gavin’s finale was decidedly pointed in the direction of enjoyment.
The Spice Girls reformed for one night only, the Who oiled their joints and performed admirably. Take That belted out a tune and even the seething menace of Liam Gallagher appeared channelled as he sang Wonderwall.
Lord Coe, the chairman of the organising committee, remained in the presidential tribunes as the debris from the stage was cleared and the athletes wended their way back to the village.
He signed autographs, accepted the compliments and posed for family photographs. “On the first day of these games I said we were determined to do it right,” he recalled. “I said that these Games would see the best of us. On this last day I can conclude with these words: When our time came we did it right.”
Few would disagree.