LONDON: London nursed a collective hangover Monday as it bade farewell to the Olympics and to thousands of athletes heading home, and Britain looked back with pride on a Games one newspaper said had “surpassed our wildest dreams.”
The triumphant headlines were in stark contrast to the sense of foreboding in the buildup to the 17-day tournament, when an embarrassing shortage of security guards and concerns over urban transport chaos had dominated the debate.
Add to that a price tag of more than $14 billion during an economic downturn, not to mention nagging fears of a terrorist attack, and the sense of relief is palpable now it is all over.
“The world’s verdict is unanimous,” best-selling newspaper the Sun trumpeted in an editorial after millions stayed up late for a closing festival of British music and style. “Our Games were sensational. We absolutely nailed it,” it said. “So let’s be very proud today. To be British is to be a winner again.”
Pride was tinged with regret, however, as the diversion of more than two weeks of action-packed sport abruptly ended and the workaday reality of a recession-hit economy and painful government spending cuts loomed large once again.
And in a sobering reminder of the problems big business sport still face from dope cheats, Olympic women’s shot put champion Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus was stripped of her gold medal Monday after testing positive for a banned substance.
Heathrow airport expected to see off around 8,000 Olympic athletes who were departing Monday, according to the BBC, many of them having taken part in the closing ceremony at the main stadium in long-depressed East London late Sunday.
The exuberant showcase of British pop, culture and fashion starred the Spice Girls, The Who, Madness, George Michael and a cast of thousands of volunteers, and it played out before another packed audience at the 80,000-capacity arena.
During a special eight-minute segment, the stadium was bathed in the colors and sounds of Brazil, as the Olympics looked ahead to 2016 when Rio De Janeiro is the host city.
The Who had the final word with “My Generation,” an echo of the London 2012 motto “Inspire a Generation,” as organizers and the government strive to ensure a lasting public legacy that goes beyond expensive white elephants and unpaid bills.
Fulfilling promises of a “cheeky” and “cheesy” close, Eric Idle of Monty Python sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” there was a giant inflatable octopus and a “human cannonball” flew through the air.
The Olympic flag was handed to Rio mayor Eduardo Paes before International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge called the London Games “happy and glorious” – words borrowed from Britain’s national anthem to the queen – and declared the festival closed.
The stadium was the setting for some of the most spectacular moments of the Games, including Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt defending the 100- and 200-meter and 4x100 relay titles he won in Beijing, the last of these in a world-record 36.84 seconds.
British athletics fans will also cherish memories of the venue, where Somali-born Londoner Mo Farah won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters double to deafening roars and was celebrated as a symbol of London’s multiculturalism.
The hosts won 29 golds, their best result for 104 years, to take third place in the rankings, helping lift a nation where social stability is far from a given a year after violent summer riots and looting swept parts of the capital and other cities.
Many will remember London 2012 for the record-breaking exploits of American swimmer Michael Phelps, who took his life-time medal haul to 22 including 18 golds, making him the most decorated Olympian in history.
His tally helped the United States to the top of the Olympic table with 46 golds to second-placed China’s 38, reversing the order of the Beijing Games in 2008.
There was, of course, Bolt, the biggest name in athletics and a charismatic ambassador for sprinting.
After winning the 4x100 Saturday evening he went on to a London nightclub to delight dancing fans with a turn as a DJ, shouting out “I am a legend” to the packed dance floor.
Britons may also recall Andy Murray demolishing world No. 1 Roger Federer at Wimbledon to win the men’s singles tennis gold, while compatriot Jessica Ennis, her face seen on a thousand billboards, won the women’s heptathlon a week ago.
Despite concerns about the creaky transport system and a shortfall of private security guards, which forced the government to call in thousands of extra troops to help screen visitors, the Games passed by fairly trouble free.
A furor over empty seats at several Olympic venues blew over, especially once the track and field showcase kicked in and drew capacity crowds for virtually every session.
It was not all about triumph, however. Many tears shed by athletes and the public were of sorrow, not joy, as medals were narrowly missed and controversial decisions left athletes convinced they were wronged.
At the closing ceremony, a highlights video reel included images of South Korea’s Shin A-Lam alone and distraught on the fencing piste after a timekeeping error contributed to her defeat in an epee semifinal.
China’s hero Liu Xiang suffered heartache again after crashing into the first barrier of the 110 sprint hurdles four years after he withdrew from the heats in Beijing due to injury.