A glorious British success story… make no mistake, the London Olympic Games were a true delight
22:06 GMT, 13 August 2012
Four years ago, I sat in a backstreet cafe behind Tiananmen Square and attempted to sum up in a few words a gargantuan show that had left the watching world breathless.
All I could come up with at first was the following five words: I’m so glad it’s over.
Four years on, I’m attempting once again to sum up the greatest show sport will ever know. And do you know what I’ve come to the same conclusion. Thank goodness it has come to an end.
I know that I won't win any awards for originality, and please don’t get me wrong, I love the Olympic Games with a passion that borders on a fixation. It’s just that I feel sated now, fully satisfied. I’ve seen enough, thank you very much, until the next time this scarcely believable roadshow rolls into our lives.
Farewell: The Olympic Games ended in spectacular fashion in Stratford
How to compare Olympics of past and present In a way, the answer is simple. Don’t. Not to any great extent anyway. Each one is just different, and perhaps none more so than the last two summer shows.
The 2008 production in Beijing was undeniably spectacular, but the Games was used by the Chinese government as an enormous propaganda exercise, a coming out party to beat all others. This was the subtext behind the grandeur of that Olympics: Nothing can stop China being the world's greatest superpower, and it will happen soon.
This Olympics in London, right here on our own doorstep, has been something else. Rather British in fact. Still a great spectacle, but laced with an eccentric touch, and like us strangely vulnerable.
Some things will never change at the Games, namely the brilliance of the sport. It's always wonderful, how could it not be World records, thrilling victories, dramatic comebacks.
We had Usain Bolt cementing his legendary status on the track, Michael Phelps against Ryan Lochte in the pool, Sir Chris Hoy in the velodrome. There was poster girl Jessica Ennis making her dreams come true, Mo Farah becoming one of Britain’s greatest track and field stars of all time, and all that seemingly endless British success in rowing and cycling.
But you know all this, you’ve spent the last couple of weeks glued to the sofa, watching the extraordinary theatre unfold before your eyes.
Golden moment: Mo Farah crosses the line to win the 5,000m and complete a glorious double
What about the venues The Olympic Stadium was simply stunning. I have to confess that I thought it looked like an identikit stadium from pictures on television before the Games, but it proved to be a splendid arena. It had a noise all of its own, and it was cozy too, a fitting and homespun counterbalance to Beijing’s staggering Birds Nest.
Away from the stadium, there was
something distinctive and delightful about both the Aquatics Centre and Velodrome. The handball arena, The Copper Box, was so endearing, it was
nicknamed the 'Box That Rocks'. The ExCel Arena in London's Docklands,
which is more typically used for trade fairs and the like, rocked to
raucous atmospheres at the boxing and taekwondo.
If we're talking crowds, the sight of the whole Games for me was seeing the day sessions of the athletics played out to full houses. It’s hard to express in words how extraordinary this is. Even at very successful Games of the past, like Barcelona or Sydney, those sessions were played out to one man and his dog. Attending the heats at past Games has been seen as something of a booby prize. Not here, not when every ticket was so prized.
What a sight: A packed Olympic Stadium on the opening morning of track and field competition
Compared to Beijing, the noise levels were ear splitting. I was at the Laoshan Velodrome at the 2008 Games, and it was comparatively very quiet there. Likewise at the Birds Nest. The British passion for sport simply cannot be denied.
The volunteers were smashing, but if I'm honest I find that they nearly always are. In fact, this reminds me, we often tend to get carried away at the end of a Games with how excellent the event has been.
Yes, this has been a smashing Olympics, make no mistake about that. Yes, the crowds have been superb, the buzz on the streets joyful. Yes, strangers have been speaking to each other on public transport, and that has been lovely.
But I was saying all this two years ago, after leaving Vancouver's Olympic Winter Games. That was a mad party too. Amid the pride of putting on such a grand show, we shouldn’t get carried away with ourselves in the rush to call this Olympics 'the best ever' or bestow it with any other unnecessary grand titles. It has been a particularly good episode of an extraordinary long-running show, granted. But future productions will be sparkling, too. Next stop Sochi, then Rio, and so on.
Legends: Usain Bolt (above) won another Olympic sprint double, while Michael Phelps (below) became the most successful Olympian of all time
The natural British feel of the whole affair has certainly been a breath of fresh air after the formalities of Beijing. It really did feel rigid at times in the Chinese capital. However much you tried, you could never properly escape from reminders of the country’s appalling human rights record, and the questionable morality of the world’s greatest sporting event being held in that country.
Don't get me wrong, this is not the land of milk and honey, and only sweet things, but there has been something more wholesome about the summer of 2012, in comparison with 2008. Right from that glorious opening ceremony, with its clip from Kes and tribute to the NHS, it was very clear this would be an event with its own special flavour.
Personally, I watched the road cycling races pass through the village in which I grew up. I also watched the time trialists pedal furiously down the leafy Weston Green Road behind Esher train station in Surrey. The Suburban Games, if you will.
It's often the events you've seen in person that stick with you the longest. The joy of Chinese youngster Zhang Jike as he won the men's singles table tennis title, jumping over the hoardings and kissing the podium in sheer ecstasy. Being in a crowd of more than 70,000 at Wembley for a match involving Britain's women's football team. Cuba's Felix Sanchez weeping as he received his gold medal at the Olympic Stadium after winning the men's 400m hurdles. Shouting and cheering Anthony Joshua to his boxing gold medal. Wonderful deposits in the memory banks, all of them.
Pure joy: Zhang Jike celebrates after winning the men's table tennis singles title
Fan-tastic: More than 70,000 were at Wembley Stadium to see Britain's women's football team take on Brazil
It felt like you were in an Olympic city where ever you went in London. It might sound simple, but I think the special signs plastered all over town helped. The Games was truly omnipresent.
I recall that the venues were first class at the 2004 Games in Athens, but over dinner and drinks in historic parts of town like Monastiraki, you could have been forgiven for forgetting the Olympics was taking place. There were no big screens, no Olympic paraphernalia. Heavens, there were hardly any souvenir shops. I read somewhere that London organisers were hoping to raise 70 million from the sale of memorabilia. Mind-boggling numbers, I know.
Spending time in Beijing's Forbidden City, or climbing The Great Wall of China, rank among the most unforgettable experiences of my travelling life, but there was often no discernible link to the Games in the summer of 2008. It often seemed like it was taking place somewhere else, even though I was in an Olympic city.
Emotion: Felix Sanchez (left) after winning gold (left) and Anthony Joshua during the British anthem (right)
I obviously can't go without a word about the transport. Let's be frank, it worked. The transport nearly always does work well enough at the Games, to be fair, but the efficient and smooth performance of London’s various transport systems did come as something of a relief. Obviously, it helped that so many locals were frightened away by those semi-apocalyptic messages from the Mayor before the Games.
So, what about that all-important legacy Has a generation really been inspired It must surely have been amazing to watch this Games through young British eyes.
What about the future of the venues It certainly seems like there have been more solid plans made for the future, more so than in Barcelona or Athens, where the places that once rocked to Olympic drama now lie empty, unused and unloved. I will certainly be one of those heading over to the Aquatics Centre to have a swim when it opens to the public in 2014.
We're also assured that the Olympic Village will be turned into affordable homes. Let's hope they really do go to those that need them.
For now, let all worries about that be cast to one side as we sink into our sofas and reflect on 17 days of outstanding sport, and great emotion.
I craned my neck at the end of a crowded hutong to watch fireworks over Tiananmen Square at the end of the Beijing Games. This time round, I could see the closing ceremony fireworks through the window of my East End flat. Very different places, but the same special show, truly the greatest event sport will ever know.
What to do next, without those morning rowing heats and evening athletics Some of you will be switching on ITV for the first time in weeks. Some of you may feel rather punch drunk, maybe even a little low. A collective hangover is taking hold.
Would you like a little piece of friendly advice Please, allow me. Buy a ticket for the Paralympic Games. Let's help to make that a magnificent success too.
There's always a next time: A sign at Stratford railway station reminds us of the 2016 hosts