London 2012 closing ceremony ends a 'happy and glorious' Olympics

The London 2012 closing ceremony had some fun moments, but far more memorable was the show the hosts put on during the past 17 days, allowing everyone to feel a bit British. 

Pawel Kopczynski/REUTERS
Fireworks explode during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium Sunday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Before the 2012 Olympics began, it was not immediately clear why London wanted the Summer Games at all.

London, after all, was not Beijing, Turin, or Salt Lake. It had nothing to prove to anyone and certainly didn't need to spend $14 billion for a party. All Britain – indeed all the British Commonwealth – had already had a rather large one to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's 60 years on the throne. After a Diamond Jubilee, wouldn't an Olympic Games, even a golden one, be a little less precious?

But now we know better. We know that there are, in fact, not enough days in the year to celebrate being British.

On Sunday night here in London, the Olympic Games ended with closing ceremonies that reminded the world that, yes, a lot of popular music has come from Britain. It was fun in parts, like whenever Eric Idle was on stage or when Muse tore through "Survival," which has been the anthem of these Olympics, played before the start of every event with great effect. The Spice Girls were a hoot, too. 

But the closing ceremonies generally failed to find the whimsy or the visceral honesty of the opening ceremonies, which captured something more deeply British, instead contenting themselves with essentially being a "greatest hits" collection – the world's most expensive episode of "Britain's Got Talent."

As desserts go, it was perhaps a bit too much treacle. But that is not what the world will remember from these Olympics. It will remember what it felt like, for a little more than a fortnight, to be made a part of the happy few on this small island – this blessed plot – and what a joy that was.

"These were happy and glorious Games," said International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge at the closing ceremonies, quoting a line from the British national anthem.

And he was right.

Breathing space 

In the end, the IOC's decision to award the Olympics to London – to a city that has 1,000 years of history, that has ruled over an empire upon which the sun never set, and which has been a world hub of finance, culture, and politics since well before there was a modern Olympics – was a masterstroke. At no point since the turn of the century have the Olympics been held in a place that was so palpably content with itself.

That lent the Games something they have not had for some time – and which made the London Olympics so welcome. Breathing space. Gold medals were not statements of global hegemony, they were just reasons for the home crowd to cheer a bit louder. Olympic venues were not infused with a nation's sense of its own destiny. In places, the operation had the feeling of a giant Erector Set.

But that was all to the good. London was never going to out-Beijing Beijing, and the wisest decision was not even to attempt it. Instead, the organizers of London 2012 decided that Beijing could not out-Britain Britain, and that there was something of value for the Olympic movement and the world in that distinction.

The past 17 days have proven them right.  

They have proven that the Olympics did come to their spiritual home in Britain – where rowing and fencing and tennis, not to mention the sporting ideals that underlie the entire Olympic movement, began.

They have proven that their city's history and charm was more than enough to compensate for the lack of signature venue like the Bird's Nest or Water Cube. Could any other city match the scenes at Horse Guards Parade or Wimbledon or the Mall? 

But more than any of these things, London 2012 has proven, beyond the remotest doubt, that much if not most of Britain truly did want these Olympics in the end. Not for national pride, though that was in present in good regulation, but because it was a bloody brilliant time to be British.  

A sporting nation

Britain's Olympics were the hordes on the Underground, happily jostling their way to Olympic events and chatting animatedly about Wiggo's gold medal in the road cycling time trial. The enthusiasm was genuine, and there never appeared to be any attempt to manufacture it. 

Britain's Olympics were in the moderator for the press conferences at the women's gymnastics, who went beyond keeping things orderly. As athletes answered questions, she would add her own commentary as an addendum. In another place, perhaps, it might have been presumptuous. But there she was, a grandmotherly figure in her Olympics-issue purple shirt and orange epaulets, telling Gabby Douglas how beautiful her smile was, and in saying so, making it just a little brighter.  

And most of all, Britain's Olympics were in the Union Jack, because it was everywhere. Six years ago at the soccer World Cup in Germany, the success of the home team liberated many in the country from a sense of shame for the past, and for the first time, it seemed, German national flags flew high and without apology. Some here have said that these Olympics have had a similar, though subtler effect on the host nation, freeing the British consciousness from the latent guilt of an imperial past.

If it is true, then that, too, was all to the good, because it helped to create that space for the proper pride of all nations to flourish and feel at home. The Union Jack did not threaten, but invited us all to join in its joys, which is the rarest and most precious of all Olympic achievements for a host nation.  

Who did not cry with Jessica Ennis or watch Mo Farah with eyes wide?  

No one does understatement with more passion than the British, and four years after a Games that were wonderful in their own right, that was just what Dr. Rogge ordered – a nation that did not need the spotlight for itself, but instead provided sport's biggest moment with a perfect stage. 

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