London fell in love with Olympics

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LONDON -- When a city asks to host the Olympic Games, it is essentially saying that it is open to a transformation of mind, body and soul.

Problem was, when London was awarded the 2012 games back in '05, many in its proud citizenry were unconvinced that their beloved town needed any alteration whatsoever.

And maybe it didn't. London had gotten along just fine for more than six decades since it last hosted an Olympics in 1948. The city, ravaged by the Second World War, emerged out of its darkest days as a modern international center for commerce and culture and yet managed to retain its original identity as a place rooted in its incomparable history.

The monarchy lived on, the trains -- underground and overground -- ran perfectly on time, and you could still get a pint of room-temperature beer for a couple of pounds.

Still, there was the looming matter of these Olympics. Could London's old arteries, already plenty clogged, handle hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the globe in a three-week span? With the world watching, would the United Kingdom's grandest city have what it take to put its best foot forward?

As the games approached, many Londoners were convinced that something bad was bound to happen. How bad, was the question. Some left town for vacation, choosing to avoid it altogether and wondering what would be left of their city's hard-earned reputation upon their return.

Sunday night's closing ceremony was London's final act, and, as it has from the moment the opening ceremony began on July 27, it brought all the creativity and humor and self-awareness that anybody who has paid attention to London 2012 has come to expect.

In the process, long-held assumptions about the city have been tossed out the window of a red double-decker bus. For instance, those who thought the town's food was bland were met with the world's best curry selection outside of India and a cameo from the Spice Girls on Sunday night.

The five women who turned pop music upside down in the 1990s were just one of the highlights of a show that kept viewers guessing all night. At one point, John Lennon's "Imagine" was played as a massive cutout of Lennon's face was assembled in the middle of the stage. Above, on the screen, the song's lyrics were translated into different languages.

At another point, nine British supermodels were brought into Olympic Stadium for the enjoyment of all. At another, George Michael, well past his prime, took the stage and sang "Freedom!" while wearing all black leather and a silver skull belt buckle.

If anyone thought that the British had forgotten how to rock, it was proven Sunday that those people were sorely mistaken.

London's appearance to the world changed forever during these Olympics.

"I've been here four times," said Drew Leety, 33, a Pittsburgh-area native who came to London for the games. "This is definitely the most energetic the city has ever been. You can tell it's not the business crowd. It's the Olympic crowd. You see different people from different countries, all sort of mixing together, conversing on the streets, helping people take pictures of each other. Normally, it's just people with blinders on."

London will likely not view itself the same way, either. Despite the oft-gray weather, maybe the outlook doesn't have to always be so gloomy.

Graham Magee, a 33-year-old Londoner, was standing next to his friend Mr. Leety outside St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday afternoon as the Olympic men's marathon passed by with sun shining and church bells ringing.

"It's all run really well," Mr. Magee said. "I was amazed. We were all told to stay away. Lots of friends have gone away for a couple weeks. It's actually been a dream."

The dream is now over, and those who took every opportunity to leave their individual realities during the athletic competition in London were left with enough memories to last the next four years, when Rio de Janeiro undergoes its transformation at the 2016 games.

The United States was the medal count winner, taking 104 total (46 gold, 29 silver and 29 bronze) to China's 87 (38 gold, 27 silver and 22 bronze). And every one of those American medals came with a story.

For swimmer Michael Phelps, London only confirmed what observers already knew: that he is one of the greatest Olympians ever. His six medals --four gold -- brought his record totals to 22 total and 18 gold.

For Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, his gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200 meters and 4x100 relay turned him into an Olympic legend.

New stars were cast into the public eye. American Gabby Douglas, 16, became her country's first gymnast to win the all-around competition and the team competition. Her teammate Jordyn Wieber did not get a chance to go for the all-around, bowing out in the qualification stage, but she recovered two days later to help Team USA to team gold.

In swimming, 17-year-old Missy Franklin looked as if she is ready to dive into Mr. Phelps' role as the sport's face, taking four golds and five medals total.

In the first women's boxing competition in Olympic history, a 17-year-old from Flint, Mich., named Claressa Shields took the gold medal in the middleweight division.

In track and field, South African Oscar Pistorius became the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, introducing a healthy debate about whether his prosthetic limbs give him an advantage over able-bodied men.

Locally, McKeesport native Swin Cash won her second gold medal as a part of the U.S. women's basketball team, Rochester native Lauryn Williams won gold with the U.S. women's track and field 4x100 relay team, Hopewell native Christa Harmotto took silver with the U.S. women's volleyball team and Waynesburg native Coleman Scott fought his way to an individual bronze medal in freestyle wrestling.

Some will remember the past 16 days as the time when the lasting implications of Title IX, the 40-year-old piece of legislation barring gender discrimination in school sports, were felt for the first time. Of Team USA's 530 total Olympians, women outnumbered men for the first time, 269 to 261. Of America's 46 golds, 29 were won by women.

"If you look at the U.S. medal performance over the last 10 to 20 years," said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, "a lot of the success we have had, in comparison to other nations, is our women, and we are very proud of that. We have a national commitment to make sure that young women are getting an opportunity to be involved in sport. The rest of the world is clearly doing the same thing, so we are glad we got ahead of the curve."

Of course, there were controversies in London, too. Some were quite unbelievable. Four women's badminton doubles teams -- two from South Korea, one from China and one from Indonesia -- were disqualified from the games because it was determined that they were intentionally trying to lose their matches to get better placement later in the tournament.

Nick Delpopolo, a 23-year-old judoka from New Jersey, was disqualified after he tested positive for marijuana use. Mr. Delpopolo later said that he had unknowingly eaten food that had been baked with marijuana.

On a more global level, there was NBC's decision not to air the Olympics live, opting instead for the more lucrative prime-time coverage. NBC may have ignored the effect of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, but it still reported these games as the network's most-watched in history.

Somewhere along the way, a predictable thing happened: London fell in love with the Olympics.

Sunday night, when it came time for the Olympic flame to be extinguished, thousands of fans in the stadium booed.

"This may be the end of two glorious weeks in London," said Sebastian Coe, the chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, "but what we have begun will not stop now. The spirit of these Olympics will inspire a generation.

"We have seen in these days what tenacity can do, what ambition can do, what imagination can do. We know more now, as individuals and as a nation, just what we are capable of. And that knowledge will drive us on."


J. Brady McCollough: and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 13, 2012 4:00 AM


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