Thank you, Sir Ben and Sir Bradley, Jessica, Ellie and David for giving us time of our lives
00:15 GMT, 30 December 2012
It was towards the end of the Opening Ceremony that a blissful certainty descended. In the space of a single enchanted evening, Danny Boyle had painted a picture of a nation at ease with itself; compassionate, resourceful, diverse and quirky. And as we stumbled away from the stadium, senses reeling from the spectacle, we knew beyond question that Boyle’s masterpiece had set the stunning tone; that London would stage an Olympics for the ages.
The heroes would emerge in golden clusters; Mo and Jessica, Bradley and Victoria, Ben, Andy and all those for whom first names alone now suffice. Over the past few weeks of the awards season, those heroes have been duly feted by a grateful public. Soon they will tramp in massed ranks to the house at the end of The Mall, where a sword will touch deserving shoulders and medals will dangle from worthy lapels.
Arise: Ben Ainslie is one of the Olympic heroes being honoured for their achievements
Pace setter: Bradley Wiggins celebrates winning the Men's Individual Time Trial
Something to behold: Jessica Ennis flew the flag for Britain as she won the heptathlon
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It is right that they should be rewarded, especially if those rewards help us remember how it felt in the days of high summer, when great deeds were done in stadium and velodrome, on lake and road and in all those arenas which held the country entranced for day after magical day. And not merely the deeds themselves, but the numbers and the passion of those who witnessed them.
Those of us who have followed the Olympic circus down the decades had grown used to stadia being thinly populated for heats or qualifiers or so-called ‘minor’ sports. Not in London. Sebastian Coe had promised that the Games would be watched by capacity crowds. To the amazement of the International Olympic Committee, that promise was emphatically delivered.
The numbers were unprecedented. If tickets were unobtainable, then the public would stand five, ten, 15 deep to cheer on the triathletes, the marathon runners or the road racing cyclists. And not only the British contenders, but each and every Olympian.
The feats of the gods demanded full tribute, of course. Usain Bolt was already installed as a citizen of the world, while the likes of the American swimmer Michael Phelps, and Kenya’s David Rudisha, whose 800 metres world record was perhaps the performance of the entire Games, produced the kind of excellence which far superseded nationality.
But the same approval and admiration was accorded to the overmatched boxer, the outclassed swimmer, and to young Sarah Attar, the first woman athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete in an Olympic arena. Sarah finished more than 30 seconds behind the field in the 800 metres but thunderous cheers told of her ultimate triumph. Somebody asked if she had a message for her countrywomen. ‘I’d tell them: Don’t give up on your dreams,’ said Sarah, and a roomful of reporters began blinking furiously.
Usain and Michael, David and Sarah; we treated them all alike. Never was a Games more welcoming, less partisan. It was an object lesson in how civilised sport should be conducted. In truth, we surprised ourselves. For there was courtesy and friendliness, a willingness to chat with strangers, advise on travel and recommend decent pubs. This was not what visitors expected from Britain, and most certainly not from London. Their surprise was our delight.
Delivered: Sebastian Coe oversaw a fantastic Olympics in front of packed stadiums
Global citizen: Usain Bolt is known all over the world and his popularity increased further still at the Games
What about the golf
If anybody is foolish enough to ask me about the last day of the Ryder Cup, I tell them at some length about standing on the fringe of the 18th green at Medinah, so close to the winning putt that I actually heard Martin Kaymer’s ball fall ‘clonk-clonk-clonk’ into the cup.
And it’s true, at least I think it is. Difficult to tell as, at that moment, the world went mad in celebration of the most incredible recovery in the history of the event.
In any other year, it would have been the outstanding sporting memory. In the year of the London Olympics, it took its place in a long queue.
The same may be said of Rory McIlroy. Being leading money-winner on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as US PGA champion, qualifies him for no more than an honourable mention. Even so, it was a staggering year for the young Irishman.
Naturally, the mood was assisted by the extraordinary success of Team GB. At this nostalgic time of year, the tales of gold are lovingly retold. Even those of us present on the first ‘Super Saturday’ occasionally wonder if it really happened.
But the reality was gold in the women’s team pursuit, gold in the men’s coxless four and gold for Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland in the women’s double scull. All of which was a prelude to a night of sheer fantasy in the Olympic Stadium.
Heptathlon gold for Jess Ennis, long
jump gold for Greg Rutherford, 10,000 metres gold for Mo Farah. Lord Coe
called it ‘the greatest day of sport I have ever witnessed’. But it was
even more; with six Olympic gold medals, it was the greatest day that
British sport has ever known.
And so it continued; Wiggins in the time
trial, Murray at Wimbledon and, absurdly, another Super Saturday with Mo
winning an historic 5,000 metres and Bolt’s Jamaicans obliterating the
sprint relay world record.
Magic MOment: Farah crosses the line to win the 5,000m at the London Olympics
Spectacular: It wasn't just the stadium and the fireworks which looked great
Along with a fierce pride in our city and its people, there was a deep and genuine sadness when the Olympic flame died. We told ourselves that never again would we know such times, nor see such sport. That mournful conviction lasted precisely 17 days.
For, quite astonishingly, the Paralympics were equally compelling. Long before the first week was through, the names of David Weir and Sarah Storey, of Sophie Christiansen and the captivating Ellie Simmonds were rolling off the tongue. Ellie’s 400 metres performance in the Aquatic Centre was equalled only by the drama of the men’s 100 metres, when Britain’s Jonnie Peacock sprinted away from the overwhelming favourite, Oscar Pistorius.
Captivating: Ellie Simmonds (right) was one of the Paralympians who stunned us again and again
Thrillers: David Weir and Sarah Storey (below) delighted us during the Paralympics
The Paralympics were no longer worthy and esoteric. In less than two weeks, they had moved into the mainstream. It was perhaps the most significant advance that British sport made all year. And when they ended, in lachrymose lashings of Coldplay, the melancholy began in earnest.
I remember leaving the Olympic Park on that Sunday evening and boarding the Docklands Light Railway. Across the carriage, in their distinctive purple and red suits, sat a couple of volunteers. They were middle-aged, tired and a little emotional. Unpaid and largely unheeded, they had worked throughout the Olympics, then the Paralympics. Save for a single basketball game, they had seen little live sport.
On that final day, they had completed a double shift, getting up at 6.15 for the early start. It was almost midnight, and their faces were grey with fatigue. Tomorrow, they would become civilians again. They were not looking forward to it. ‘So you enjoyed the Games’ I asked. They smiled at the foolish question. ‘Enjoyed it’ said the man. He shook his head, slowly. ‘It was the best time of our lives.’ In those few words, he had given us the perfect summary of our Olympic summer.
Murray delivers the dream
There were times during 2012 when the bare facts read like tall stories. Andy Murray, Wimbledon finalist, was one thing. Andy Murray, Olympic gold medallist, was another.
And Andy Murray, US Open champion, the first Briton to win a Grand Slam since 1936, was of another order entirely. Yet in the course of his staggering summer, he delivered all three. In a normal era, it would have been a sensational achievement. But in an era containing the finest players the game has known, it was a feat beyond compare.
What a year: Andy Murray memorably won the US Open title in November
Unless the comparison happened to be with the deeds of Bradley Wiggins. His victory in the time trial at the London Games was his fourth Olympic gold. He also happened to win the Tour de France.
It goes without saying that he was the first Briton ever to do so; the first to scale the mountains, to charge through the valleys, to endure the sprints and the time trials and to ride into Paris in a yellow jersey. He covered 2,173.75 miles and devastated the most formidable field his sport could assemble.
To have a Murray or a Wiggins once in a lifetime would represent lavish prosperity. To have two such athletes in the same astonishing year was sporting wealth beyond measure.
Pietersen keeps finding new ways to steal the limelight
One abiding image of the celebrations which followed England’s series victory in India is of Kevin Pietersen grinning at the camera, the autographs of his team-mates scrawled all over his shirt front. The picture screamed ‘reintegration’, which was presumably what Pietersen wanted to convey.
It was a momentous year for English cricket. A great captain, Andrew Strauss, made way for the youthful Alastair Cook, who also has the whiff of greatness about him. And England lost a hard-fought home series to a formidable South Africa team, which made their subsequent triumph in the sub-continent the more remarkable.
Yet throughout the year, Pietersen had invaded the headlines to the discomfort of the cricket authorities. There was his texting to South African opponents — ‘provocative’ but not ‘derogatory’, he insisted. There were his crass public statements, the indiscreet jabber which invited retribution.
Whirlwind: Currently there is tranquility between England and Kevin Pietersen… will it last
And there was his unfortunate habit of listening only to bad advice, taking only unsound decisions and repeatedly allowing ego to over-rule his dubious judgement.
But there was also his talent, that glittering ability which allowed him — in Colombo, at Headingley and, most dramatically, in Mumbai — to play, in a calendar year, three of the finest innings the modern game has known.
It was that glorious talent which saw him reintegrated into a team that sorely need his gifts. At the moment, all is tranquil between Pietersen and England. We must hope that tranquillity reigns in 2013.
Greed and ugliness 3
Drama and Sense 2
At the last gasp, Manchester City won the most dramatic title contest the Premier League has seen. Still more improbably, Chelsea emerged from the Champions League clutching the trophy with the big ears.
Another massive TV deal was signed, prompting agents to order fresh stocks of Krug. And England chose an immensely capable and experienced man to be their new manager.
There were those who declared it an excellent year for football. And they were wrong.
For the most urgent priority of the English game was the pursuit of the bottom line. The Premier League was the richest, therefore, it had to be the best.
Racism was ugly, of course, but it was a problem for less enlightened countries. We have no truck with that kind of thing here. Likewise hooliganism; all in the past. And yet, the cases began to accumulate. The Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair was shabbily treated by Liverpool.
Shambolic: Liverpool's treatment of the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra race row was poor
The John Terry-Anton Ferdinand scandal dragged on through much of the year and was appallingly handled by just about everybody involved.
The moral leadership was non-existent, the consequences deeply damaging.
Meanwhile, crowd chants grew uglier, more threatening, and grounds suddenly seemed less safe than they should be.
Good things were happening, too, and the appointment of Roy Hodgson was sane and sensible. He may not have sufficiently talented players and the Brazil World Cup is surely a hopeless quest. Yet he represents an important step in the right direction.
The national game — so wealthy, so confident yet so little loved — needs many such steps in 2013.