Tears and smiles by the billion at London Games
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain spent nearly nine billion pounds to create a magical and ambitious wonderland of venues for the 2012 Olympic Games, where fans were thrilled across a capital whose grime and grandeur alike got a makeover of global glamour.
The Games proved a timely shot in the arm, spiritually if not financially, for a bruised nation struggling with economic recession. The government, citing figures that were all but unmeasurable, said they would even deliver monetary benefits, to the tune of some $20 billion, though others were sceptical.
As for sport, the cash delivered a gold rush of medals for the somewhat startled hosts - placing them third, their best result since 1920, if well behind the table-topping United States and China, which returned to the number two spot after dominating its home Games in Beijing four years earlier.
More importantly, though, the July and August Games gave Britain - and Britishness - a reputational boost, at home and abroad, at a time when few who are younger than the 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth can recall its days of imperial glory.
Instead, 2012 showcased a new, modern London as a tolerant, welcoming and multicultural city.
Britain delivered, or, as the otherwise rather beleaguered Prime Minister David Cameron put it after the Games: "We showed the world what we're made of; we reminded ourselves of what we could do."
Many overseas agreed. Recalling prophecies of doom, about terror and traffic and Londoners' deep reserves of cynicism and, well, reserve, Italy's Corriere della Sera declared: "Thank you, London - A lesson to the pessimists ... When it comes to parties, festivals and ceremonies, no-one can match the British."
"The neo-British...are emotional," marvelled the Italians, traditional champions in the heart-on-sleeve stakes. "They feel the tension beforehand; they weep on the podium and watching the television; they put down their beer and hug their neighbour."
What the investment left behind was an unforgettable sporting tapestry of tears, drama and raw emotion played out against backdrops from Buckingham Palace to a grand new stadium where factory hulks once blighted the blitz-scarred East End.
These were the Games that Olympic chief Jacques Rogge called "happy and glorious", echoing Britain's national anthem "God Save the Queen" as Elizabeth celebrated 60 years on the throne.
They opened with seven young, unknown athletes lighting the cauldron and had as their motto "Inspire a Generation".
As he closed the Games, Rogge said: "The human legacy will reach every region of the world. Many young people will be inspired to take up a sport or to pursue their dreams."
The 2012 Olympics proved the perfect stage for the world's fastest man Usain Bolt, who became the first man to defend the 100 and 200 metres double on the running track.
As he accelerated to the 200 title, Bolt put his finger to his lips - silencing the doubters. With his Jamaican team mates, he went on to a "double treble", breaking the world record to retain the 4x100 metres relay title.
"I came here to become a legend and I am now," Bolt told Reuters before an early-hours turn as a nightclub DJ. "I've got nothing left to prove. I've shown the world I'm the best."
In the pool the supremacy issue was resolved emphatically when Michael Phelps swam to a status as the most decorated Olympian with 22 medals, 18 of them gold. His victory set off a debate about whether that meant he was the world's greatest.
Phelps, too, had nothing left to prove and promptly quit the sport. "It's kind of weird, it's very strange, the first day of not having to swim and never having it again," the American told Reuters. "I'm not sure right now how I feel. It's really confusing."
There was no confusion on the subject of sporting domination, though, with the U.S. finishing the Games on top of the medals table. Having trailed China in Beijing, the Americans beat the Chinese into second place with a haul of 46 golds among their 104 medals. China won 38 golds and 87 in all.
"We like to come in first," U.S. Olympic Committee chief Scott Blackmun said. "And there is nothing wrong with that."
The London Olympics were a party for the world, marshalled by Britain's soldiers, sailors and airmen, after a private security contractor caused a scandal two weeks before the start by announcing it would not be able to provide enough guards.
The military solution proved a masterstroke as 18,000 troops flooded Olympic venues, leaving fans comforted by their professionalism and impressed by their cheerful good humour.
Oscar winner Danny Boyle's quirky opening ceremony, featuring a playful - and first - cinematic performance by the Queen herself, alongside James Bond actor Daniel Craig, captivated the world and set the stage for a spectacular Games.
Britain's Olympians took up the baton to finish third, ahead of traditionally mighty Russia, with 29 golds across the field.
Fresh from Britain's first win in the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins, a fashion throwback to the 1960s Mod era, won the men's cycling time trial early on. His gold gave him seven career medals, more than any other British Olympian.
British success snowballed. Jessica Ennis dominated the heptathlon and became a national heroine overnight, along with Somali-born 5,000 and 10,000 metres double winner Mo Farah. His hands-on-pate "Mobot", an M-for-Mo victory salute, rivalled Bolt's arrow gesture for most emulated pose in souvenir snaps.
Kenya's David Rudisha smashed the 800 metres world record to win gold in one minute 40.91 - a run that Games chief Sebastian Coe, himself a former Olympic middle-distance champion, called the "stand-out performance" of London 2012.
Not since topping the table - in London - in 1908 had Britain won so many golds. One went to Nicola Adams; with a dazzling smile and down-to-earth Yorkshire grace, the 29-year-old gave the performance of her life to win women's boxing's first Olympic final.
London was also the first Games to feature women from every nation, as the remaining Arab states who had resisted abandoning their all-male team rosters relented under pressure.
Women's soccer got a major boost and a crowd of more than 80,000 attended a memorable, magical final where the U.S. beat Japan 2-1 for a third successive gold. On the men's side, five-times World Cup winners Brazil were left seeking the one major title to elude them when they were beaten by Mexico.
Andy Murray put Wimbledon heartbreak behind him to win tennis gold with a breathtaking thrashing of Roger Federer, a victory that prefaced his first grand-slam title at the U.S. Open five weeks later.
Britain ruled the velodrome and Chris Hoy wept tears of joy as the hosts ended their Olympic track cycling campaign with seven titles.
Other tears were shed in bitterness. South Korea's Shin A-Lam wept for an hour on the fencing piste after a timing quirk denied her the place in the final she thought she had secured.
Top-seeded Chinese badminton player Yu Yang quit the sport altogether in despair after being sent home following a tactical "play-to-lose" scandal: "You have heartlessly shattered our dreams. It's that simple," she said. "This is unforgivable."
Regardless, China completed a sweep of all five badminton golds, but the treatment of the women, and a whispering campaign about doping against swimming sensation Ye Shiwen angered the Chinese. "There are double standards that have taken aim at the Chinese team and its athletes," said The People's Daily.
One American who contributed to their gold collection, and at the same time won hearts the world over, was 16-year-old "flying squirrel" Gabby Douglas who became the first African American to win the women's all-around gymnastics crown.
"I was kind of America's sweetheart leading into the Games, which made me feel so good, you know, that America loved me," she grinned.
America's giants of the NBA beat an inspired Spain to retain the Olympic basketball title. Kevin Durant led the way with 30 points.
South Korea's women extended their archery domination by winning their seventh consecutive Olympic team title and took the individual gold for the seventh time in eight Olympics.
Another constant, at these Games at least, was the British monarchy; the royals popped up at venues everywhere - none more so than at the equestrian where the Queen's grand-daughter Zara Phillips won silver in eventing, then was presented with the medal by her own mother, former Olympic rider Princess Anne.
The war on doping was fought fiercely; 12 competitors were expelled or left the Games for violations, while Belarussian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk was stripped of her gold and Uzbek wrestler Soslan Tigiev had his bronze medal taken back.
Former anti-doping chief Dick Pound said the message was clear, at least every four years: "I would not expect many cases at the Olympics," he said. "Because if you test positive here, you fail not a drugs test but an IQ test."
What began with a quirky mish-mash of an opening ceremony ended with a thumping celebration of London and British music. The Spice Girls and George Michael sang. So too did The Who, with their global anthem for the future "My Generation", and Queen - though not the monarch this time, just the band. (Editing by Clare Fallon)
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