British people don’t like to think like winners. We are the world champions of self-deprecation and modesty. So when we won the right to host the 30th Olympics, there was excitement, but half the population still silently thought, ‘we are going to muck this up, aren’t we’.
That anxiety grew when Beijing handed over responsibility to the UK in 2008 after producing some of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring ceremonies and venues the world had ever seen. How on earth could we follow that? Just weeks before the Games, we waited and waited for the first moment of weakness after an unusually calm build-up period. It came when the private security company G4S announced they couldn’t handle the massive task of protecting and escorting spectators through the gates, resulting in the government drafting in the military. We pounced on the opportunity to complain and air our doubts about the cost, the point, the inevitable traffic chaos and failing school systems which would destroy the ‘legacy’ everyone was banging on about.
As it turned out, Britain had nothing to worry about, because we have delivered the greatest Olympics of the modern age.
When it came to the opening ceremony, we knew that Beijing had set the bar so high it was almost impossible to match. So we didn’t try. Beijing had produced a ceremony that said to the world, ‘here we are, look at how great we are.’ We produced a ceremony that said ‘look at how British we are.’ We didn’t care if the wider world couldn’t get every joke because WE did. But luckily or skilfully – whichever way you want to look at things – it turned out some nations did. Beijing made the world say ‘wow’. We did something much harder; we made the world laugh. Couple this with the inspiring decision to have seven promising young athletes light the beautifully original cauldron, and the ceremony set the tone for a wonderful Games.
And then something amazing happened. Almost at once the doom-mongers disappeared and the wonderful feel-good factor amongst the 70,000 volunteers, the spectators and the London citizens was wholeheartedly embraced. The traffic that was supposed to grip the city centre was non-existent. The military were worshipped – rightly so – as heroes, and they in turn produced efficient but good-humoured security that private companies can only dream of. Not since Sydney had the home nation become so intertwined with the Games.
At the venues, the British public showed just how much they love sport. The much-criticised but fair ticketing system was the most oversubscribed event in British history and when the public spotted empty seats at the start of the Games – caused by the absent corporate sponsors and IOC family members – there was outrage. The issue was addressed as best as the organisers could but this is an issue that needs to be looked at by the IOC quickly. Too many Games have been blighted by this obvious problem and in Britain it truly touched a nerve.
So when the lucky people did get a seat, they made their presence felt. They made noise. A lot of noise. At one point during a boxing final, the decibel level was louder than a jumbo jet engine and even the most stony-faced athletes had to break into a smile when they heard the thunderous reception they received from the raucous crowds. Veterans have all said that the noise generated in the Olympic stadium was the loudest, the most sustained and surprisingly the fairest they have ever experienced. This attitude was summed up when 60,000 people watched one single decathlon pole vault session as if it was the 100m final. Unprecedented.
Even the coverage of the Games was impeccable. American station NBC showed important events on time delay at primetime, missing out on the ‘live’ element of the games, and Australia’s Channel 9 had a negative Facebook campaign started against it. The BBC showed the world how to do it. At times they showed 24 different live streams of live sport on television, allowing anybody to watch their own particular favourite sport at any time, thus embracing the digital age we now live in and perfecting it when it counted.
Of course it helps if the home nation delivers where it really counts, the sport. And boy, did Team GB and the rest of the world do that. After Beijing’s magnificent 19 gold medals, people wondered how could we do better. Before the Games, I predicted Team GB would finish with 25 golds and people branded me ‘too patriotic’. Boffins used a scientific program based on rankings and home advantage and came up with 24 golds. At the closing ceremony, Great Britain had won 29 golds, managing to overhaul the mighty Russia and ending in 3rd place.
Jess Ennis – the poster girl of the Games – defiantly overtaking her rivals to win the 800m heptathlon race and the gold medal, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton failing to hold back the tears at the velodrome, Ben Ainslie becoming the greatest Olympic sailor of all time and Mo Farah’s Super Saturdays. These are the images that will stay with British hearts forever, and the rest of the world was there to see it.
But the Games still belonged to one man – Usain Bolt. The living legend hushed his critics by becoming the first man to retain the 100m and 200m titles, and he did in a way that only he knows how – with arrogant fun. Michael Phelps added another four golds to his already ridiculous 14 gold medals won in Athens and Beijing to become the greatest Olympian of all time. Gabby Dougles, Ye Shiwen and Missy Franklin all became world stars but the performance of the Games went to David Rudisha of Kenya who produced a stunning world record in the 800m, breaking the 101 second barrier for the first time ever. Add to that the two world record 4x100m relay runs, and London 2012 had some of the most iconic moments in sport of all time.
Whilst Beijing was a stunning spectacle, it felt forced, soulless, too manufactured for people’s liking. Athens was burdened with financial troubles and with no legacy plan in place; the venues are now vandalised white elephants that trump even Montreal. Atlanta was more of a shopping mall than a sports event and Seoul just never had that spark that made Barcelona and Sydney special. London has marginally come out on top by combining the love of the public with so many wonderful sporting memories that resulted in 50% of people voting London 2012 the greatest Games in modern times – in an Australian newspaper. And if you know your sporting history, you know that means something.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of London 2012 isn’t the ceremonies, nor the sport, but what will come afterwards. Just two days after the Games closed, sporting clubs all over the country were inundated, with record numbers of new applicants of all ages wanting to try and get involved in sport for the first time. Time will tell whether this is just a flash in the pan for people not wanting the Olympic experience to end or whether it’s something long-term, but it seems London 2012’s tagline which at first seemed corny – ‘inspire a generation’ – has paid off.
But it’s done more than that. Today, I can proudly say as a Brit, the Games of the XXX Olympiad have done more than that. They have inspired a nation.