The summer of love has passed. This greatest of all sporting seasons closed with millions hoping the spirit set free by the Olympics and Paralympics can achieve a lasting hold in British life. At a minimum, they were days of boundless fun.
A parade of champions from Mansion House in London at 1pm on Monday will offer one last chance to share in the glories that kept the country entranced from the moment Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony gave birth to a new national mood.
David Weir’s fourth gold medal of the Paralympics, in Sunday’s wheelchair Marathon, was the perfect final statement from an army of British athletes who excelled in tandem with London 2012’s organisers.
Then the Olympic Stadium swelled one last time as Coldplay were joined by JAY Z and Rihanna and a cast of 1,336 performers. The Union flag was hung by Captain Luke Sinnott, who lost both legs in an IED blast in Helmand province.
Like the Olympic curtain-dropper, this one imitated one of the music festivals that pepper the British summer landscape. When the sport stops here, out comes the jukebox. London 2012 has turned even Britain’s great musical industry into a support act.
When the action finally ceased, the country’s Paralympians had piled up 120 medals: 34 of them gold. Though they fell from second in Beijing (2008) to third in the medal table, behind China and Russia, they easily surpassed the 102 medals of four years ago. In the Olympics, Britain won 65 medals and 29 golds to finish third to USA and China: easily their best performance.
With only tickertape and bunting left to roll out, with Monday’s huge convoy of champions to Trafalgar Square, everyday reality crashes back in. Well, almost. There is still the potential delight of Andy Murray’s US Open final against Novak Djokovic in New York. Sport-haters will feel there is no end to their torment.
The 70,000 volunteers return to work and college and perhaps unemployment with the gratitude of athletes, spectators and politicians. The Mayor London, Boris Johnson, called the two events a “mind-boggling success” and talked of the “Golden Games”.
This kind of euphoric rhetoric will arrive by rote. But to most of us the summer is captured more by a feeling than a set of labels. The kind of patriotism that energised the venues was benign, considerate, polite and appreciative. Even the most sober commentators acknowledged a surge in positive feeling about the country we inhabit. Austerity, corruption and ineptitude turn out not to be the main picture. The mass of British people still believe in the civilizing virtues of friendliness, enthusiasm and respect for the achievements of others.
Across the wider picture there has been no greater sport for summer in these islands. The start was Manchester City winning the English league title for the first time since 1968 with virtually the last kick of the season. Then Chelsea won the Champions League for the first time in a penalty shoot-out against Bayern Munich.
Bradley Wiggins becoming the first British rider to win the Tour de France was another seminal moment; then Andy Murray became the first men’s Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin in 1938. On the racecourse, Frankel, the wonder horse, remained unbeaten, and Rory McIlory’s thumping victory in the US PGA golf enhanced his standing as the heir to Tiger Woods. In the same sport, the Ryder Cup between Europe and America is still to come later this month.
But London 2012 has been the biggest playground: the transforming event. Pre-Olympic pessimism was put to flight by the fervour of the crowds and volunteers and the soaring achievements of Britain’s athletes, who recovered from a slow start to electrify the third Olympics to be held in London. Paralympians spoke of wanting to emulate those feats and the hordes in the Olympic Stadium whipped up as much noise as they had for Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis.
In 11 days of Paralympic competition disabled sport made its great leap forward. For the first Games in Rome in 1960, 5,000 watched the opening ceremony. Here in London 80,000 packed the main arena for both shows. Ticket sales reached 2.7m and a generation of Paralympic stars vied for attention with Farah, Ennis, Wiggins and the other icons of the Olympic Games.
Weir, Sarah Storey (cycling), Ellie Simmonds (swimming), Sophie Christiansen (equestrianism) and Jonnie Peacock (the world’s fastest blade runner) are among those who leave here as household names. Storey and Weir carried in the Paralympic flag. Locog claim that three-quarters of the British population followed their sport.
Both fiestas laid on special days. In the Olympics, no-one will forget the night Ennis won the heptathlon, Farah seized the first of his two golds and Greg Rutherford won the long jump. Farah’s second gold a week later in the 5,000m was another spectacular occasion. The Paralympics answered with a so-called ‘Thrilling Thursday’: an 11th gold for Storey and victories on the track for Weir and Peacock.
Plainly the Olympic momentum carried over into the second half because people wanted more. They could not let go of those positive feelings and another set of athletes came along to satisfy their cravings.
“Para” means alongside, not paraplegic, and the 4,200 athletes from 165 countries asserted their right to be treated as elite sportsmen and women rather than disabled people seeking therapeutic outlets.
The Prime Minister, David Camerson, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009, said: “I think back to Ivan. As every parent, you think about all the things they can’t do, but at the Paralympics they are superhuman, you see all the things they can do.”
A cynic might say Britain achieved this turnaround in Olympic sport through a massive programme of financial doping, via Lottery Funding, but this conceals the improvements in sports administration and the emergence of gifted athletes with winning mentalities. Some of us still have memories of covering Britain’s one Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996: the nadir that produced a transformation in funding and strategy.
Lord Coe, who said he would be enjoying a “family-size beer” to celebrate, spoke of an internal journey across the “British Isles of Wonder” and a “Green and Pleasant Land.” He reminded the audience that the Paralympics were returning to their “spiritual home and birthplace, a Movement that was born 64 years ago after the first Stoke Mandeville Games as the world’s second biggest sporting event.”
Running through the seasons, this ceremony had the feel of a giant garden party or fete, with fold-up seating on the pitch and disabled athletes arriving before the start. It closed with a projection on the Houses of Parliament: “Thank you London, thank you UK,” – a flagrant example of politicians seizing credit for a success.
During Coldplay’s final song, ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’, water from fountains symbolised the dousing of the Paralympic flame, which was extinguished by 17-year-old Simmonds, who was born with achondroplasia, and Peacock, 19, who lost the lower half of his right leg at five-years-old to a meningitis-related infection.
Autumn’s challenge is to never forget how this summer felt.