When London lit up the world! From magical Mo to wonderful Wiggo, relive the most sensational festival of sport
01:13 GMT, 29 December 2012
We lit the flame and we lit up the world. Those were the simple words of Lord Coe, his neck flexing with exhilaration in front of a global television audience of three-quarters of a billion. He had promised at the opening ceremony a fortnight earlier that we would do it right, and so we had.
The Games of the XXX Olympiad were closing in front of our spoilt eyes and we were left to reflect on the truth that this was perhaps the best thing Britain had done since winning the Second World War.
The transformational qualities of sport were clear on London's streets. A year before, so-called student protestors had urinated on the statue of Winston Churchill. But in the summer of 2012 Britain rediscovered her senses. People were smiling. Football's tribal enmities had yielded to a more generous sporting spirit. Conversation even broke out on the Tube. This carnival gripped the nation.
Just Momentous: Farah wins the 5,000m final to complete his golden
So much so that, after today's New Year's Honours announcement, an unprecedented four sporting notables await the Queen's sword tip. Arise Sir Ben Ainslie and Sir Bradley Wiggins, knights of sailing and cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford and Sir David Tanner, the foremost performance directors of their era, from cycling and rowing. Then there is Paralympic swimming and cycling gold medallist Sarah Storey, who becomes a dame. There are 78 high-achievers on the special Olympic and Paralympic list.
I had always been a believer in London's potential to deliver a glorious Games. Coe, with a team led by his meticulous No 2 Paul Deighton, was assiduous. Anyway, the country is habitually good at staging great events. The British public generally come round to such occasions when they arrive.
This particular slow-burner was coming at us from Greece. I saw the torch lit in that ludicrous ceremony concocted by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Games among the splendid old stones of ancient Olympia.
A week later, we witnessed the rain briefly lifting at the home of the modern Olympics, the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, as the torch was passed from Greek hands to British. I reported from seat 10D on board BA flight 2012 as the flame shared the front row with the Princess Royal on our journey to the UK.
But it was in Bath on May 22 that my belief in the project became total. It was the day I ran with the Olympic flame. People were standing a dozen deep on either side of the road. Jason Gardener, relay gold medallist from the Athens Games, was a fellow runner. His eyes were moist at seeing all ages and conditions of men and women cheering and waving on the journey through the handsome streets of his home city.
Golden boys: Farah poses with Bolt at the medal ceremony
This scene was replicated virtually every mile of the torch's progress up and down the land until the night of July 27 arrived. The Opening Ceremony was upon us.
What Danny Boyle had dreamed up in his crazy and creative mind set the whole jaunty mood. Occasionally left-leaning, yes, but it was a phantasmagoria that was undeniably bonkers and brilliant. It was unashamedly made for a home audience – Mr Bean and Only Fools and Horses featured, the first with memorable piano humour. The rest of the world was simply welcome to take from it what they could.
The rehearsal and the schedule contained no mention of the Queen's involvement nor any reference to Churchill. Those extra dimensions were revealed only at the last moment. My first-edition piece, filed as the ceremony was starting, excoriated Boyle for the omissions and was followed by a call to the office: 'Where I say there was no mention of Churchill, can we change that to barely a mention'
The Queen staged surely the greatest coup de theatre in British artistic history when she turned round to say 'Good evening, Mr Bond' from her Buckingham Palace desk. She then supposedly descended to the stadium by parachute, which prompted two American ladies watching the beach volleyball to marvel at the 86-year-old monarch. 'Did you see the Opening Ceremony' one said to the other. 'They even got the Queen to jump out of a helicopter. Can you imagine Obama doing that'
Her Maj looked tired by the time the British team – led by Sir Chris Hoy – paraded in. It had been a long but uplifting night. Coe's speech about the power of sport struck me as sensationally good. He hailed a celebration of 'what is best about mankind'. He went on: 'There is a truth to sport, a purity, a drama, an intensity of spirit that makes it irresistible.
On the Boyle: a stunning opening ceremony by the film director set the tone for the greatest Games in history
'To the athletes gathered here, I say that to you is given something which is precious and irreplaceable – to run faster, to jump higher, to be stronger.' Then Lord Coe (or Mr Swan, as he called himself by adopting his grandmother's maiden name during his Games stay at the Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane) unwound with Lady Coe ahead of the feast of sport that was to come.
And so it all began. It is difficult at a few months' detachment to think just how much we anticipated Mark Cavendish getting us off to a victorious start in the road race. The rest of the world ganged up in an anyone-but-Cav pact. Our dreams dashed.
But it hardly mattered to the party. The route was lined at every yard out to the Surrey hills and back into London. And when Lizzie Armitstead took silver in the women's race the next day we had lift-off – sort of.
But, still, after four days of sport there was no gold to show for the most lavishly funded British team of all time. The success of Beijing four years before – 19 golds, 47 medals – hung heavily. Don't panic, I wrote, our strongest sports had yet to reach the medal stages.
So it was a relief to be at a windless Dorney Lake at 12.24pm on day five to see two girls in a boat deliver that elusive bullion. Heather Stanning, a Royal Artillery captain, and Helen Glover, a PE teacher, led from the start of their pairs final and commanded the race. The team had found the key to Fort Knox.
Hampton Court that afternoon provided perhaps the most famous image of the Games: Tour de France winner Wiggins, long legs crossed and flashing a Churchillian victory sign, on a gaudy throne after winning the road race. He now had seven Olympic medals – more than any Brit including Sir Steve Redgrave. Again, the crowds were immense. We were witnessing the symbiosis of participants and supporters. Enthusiasm fed success, and success fed enthusiasm.
Famous image: Bradley Wiggins on teh throne
was our greatest in Games history when we factor in that the numerical high point in 1908 came in a different world altogether. The first of three London-hosted Games lasted 187 days and a third of all competitors were British. It was the tug-of-war era.
Here the superb volunteers had the delight to announce one night as we headed out of the Park: 'Ladies and gentleman, Yorkshire is leading Australia in the medal table.' Nobody can say we do not love sport. Heats were sold out. Sports we hardly understood against nations we could barely find on a map played to full houses. No other country could boast that, including Australia, whose Sydney Olympics in 2000 were generally acknowledged until this summer as the best. The enthusiasm for the Paralympics, complete with a new host of heroes such as Storey, Jonnie Peacock, David Weir and Ellie Simmonds, underlined the point.
You could soak in the atmosphere for free on the road routes or in Hyde Park. Or for the licence fee. Bad news, so often the staple of newspapers, barely existed. Yes, the performance of Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese swimming sensation, came under scrutiny. But, suspicions raised, the story faded. A handful of badminton matches were thrown by nations looking to aid their chances in the knockout stages but the stink did not linger.
There were the occasional British disappointments, notably the underperformance of our own swimming team. I sensed the mood in the camp was desperately wrong at the World Championships the year before. They were so downbeat that we can just be thankful they didn't drown.
Swim sensation: China's Ye Shiwen
But if swimming failed, gymnastics, equestrianism, boxing all sparkled. Cycling and rowing inevitably soared. Athletics, though falling below the target set by the Mr Tough Love, aka head coach Charles van Commenee, provided the Games' most memorable evening of British endeavour. It was such a Super Saturday that long jumper Greg Rutherford is in danger of becoming a pub quiz question of the future: who was the third Briton to win a gold medal on the night that Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah both won Rutherford's misfortune, if we can call it that, was to reach the peak of his athletics career in the 44 minutes during which two of the Olympics' poster people reached theirs.
Heptathlon gold was virtually assured by the time Ennis started her final event, the 800 metres, turning it into a double lap of honour. Farah's run to 10,000m glory was packed with tension until his big eyes popped out of his head as he crossed the line first.
That day, Britain won six golds in all, the others coming through our peerless coxless four, women's double scullers and our team pursuit women in the Velodrome. It was gluttony.
We returned to see Farah go for the double the following weekend. Tired after the heats of the 5,000m, the crowd hit one of the two most ear-splitting sounds I heard all Games. The other was in the enclosed ExCeL for the boxing, first for Ireland's Katie Taylor and then our own gold medallist, the open, friendly, Nandos-loving Nicola Adams. But back to Farah. The crescendo of noise that helped push him into the front in the final lap and to withstand the late challenge of Dejen Gebremeskel and Thomas Longosiwa broke the photo-finish equipment. The vibrating stadium was too much for the technology. Thankfully, the winning margin was evident to all 80,000 loud and happy souls in the stands. It was one of the single highlights of the whole Games.
My favourite day was the longest day, the middle Sunday. Up before dawn, Tube to Waterloo, train to Weymouth, taxi to the sailing venue. Ainslie was in the latest fight of his life for a gold medal, this time against a red-bearded Viking called Jonas Hogh-Christensen.
Flying the flag: Ben Ainslie
Our greatest sailor was being frustrated by the tactics of his rivals. 'You don't want to make me angry,' he told them. After losing the first six races to Hogh-Christensen, he wrenched his way back into contention. In the final race, he went in and then out of gold-medal position. Jacques Rogge, IOC president and himself a former Finn sailor, is an avowed Ainslie admirer. He based his whole day around being free to watch the last act of this particular drama, in which Ainslie dramatically prevailed. A sword's tap awaits the sailor's shoulder.
I run to the waiting taxi, queue for the train then squeeze into a seat for more than an hour. Tube to Stratford, walk into the stadium at 9.20pm. Usain Bolt is off at 9.50pm.
The 100m final – that most stomach-turning event of the whole Games – has arrived. Bolt, who finally admitted he had been struggling with injuries we had reported, was up against his training partner Yohan Blake.
Blake, undefeated all year, had beaten the great man in the Jamaican trials. To what extent was Bolt limited by his back-related travails Could the younger man pull off the bravest heist A reputation was on the line more than a world record was in prospect. Bolt delivered gold in 9.63sec.
If only he had been fit. If only he did not party. If only he gave up the junk food. This is a man who lives by his own rules, a point reinforced when he added the 200m and the 4x100m titles to his c.v. He declared himself a legend and nobody could argue otherwise.
Before the Olympics finished, Bolt was acting out Farah's 'Mobot' celebration. Farah was striking the 'Lightning Bolt' pose. Fun and brilliance conjoined.
In the Velodrome, Victoria Pendleton took her golden leave, hopefully happy in that sometimes mixed-up mind of hers. Laura Trott emerged as cycling's new queen, an image given a glitzy frisson when she was pictured in love with her golden team-mate Jason Kenny. The oak-legged master Hoy was emotional on the podium as he bade goodbye. His second gold of the Games, which was won in the keirin, meant he had won more Olympic golds than anyone else in British history, with six to Redgrave's five.
Cycling's new queen: Great Britain's Laura Trott
Hoy, a modest man of immodest ability, still reckoned that Redgrave's quintet achieved in five separate Games, conferring longevity, is the greater achievement. I am inclined to agree.
There was so much to marvel at here. We almost forget that Michael Phelps left the pool with a career total of 18 Olympic gold medals – and that's because, in London, the American won a paucity of honours by his standards: just the four golds and two silvers.
We saw Kenya's David Rudisha win the 800m like a horse running against men. Coe hailed him as the star of the Games. It was a touching compliment from one of the greatest middle-distance runners of the ages to another. We revelled in our own heroes and heroines: Katherine Grainger, in the double sculls, winning a gold at last after three silvers. Charlotte Dujardin emerging as a double star with gold in the equestrian team event and the dressage. Nick Skelton winning gold at the age of 54 in the team showjumping.
There was triathlon's Brownlee brothers – Alistair coolly strolling through the line with the Union Flag on his back to take gold; Jonny collecting his bronze once he had been treated for exhaustion. Andy Murray's joy at Wimbledon, where there had been tears just weeks before. Jade Jones, funded by a whip-round in her home town of Flint in North Wales, winning taekwondo gold. Peter Wilson, a tall chap with a nice sense of humour, taking the shooting honours in the double trap. Tom Daley, with a diving bronze just a year after his father and mentor died, doing well to make the headlines among the golden hordes.
Too soon, the show closed on this revitalised eastern edge of the capital. Rio was charged with bringing the youth of the world together for the XXXI Olympics four years hence – no pressure there. The more prosaic debate over legacy commitments took centre stage.
Tears were shed as the flame was extinguished. Pride abounded.
London had lit up the world.