I like to imagine Michael Phelps, who failed to medal in that race for the first time in 12 years in an international meet, picking up the same London paper and seeing that headline — and then mouthing quietly, “Not so fast.”
I like to imagine Usain Bolt saying the same thing to himself after losing in the Jamaican trials to Yohan Blake. Like Phelps, Bolt had done the incomparable in Beijing and entered these Olympics four years older, much more fallible and ultimately competing against the legends of themselves they had created.
And they still managed to triumph.
There is nothing more difficult in sports than to repeat greatness. Because once it’s achieved, the rest of the world hunts, chases down and eventually catches the champion.
But no one caught Bolt. No one caught Phelps. They defended almost all their titles, and they left the Games of the XXX Olympiad as the greatest sprinter and greatest swimmer of all time.
These were certainly Britain’s Games: 80,000-strong Olympic Stadium exploding in sound as Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon and Mo Farah was golden in both the 10,000- and 5,000-meter finals, a record 64 medals for the host nation. The way in which the U.K. co-opted Bolt and Phelps and, really, every scintillating performer who wasn’t wearing the Union Jack, proved my first cabbie correct when he said, “We love the spo-o-art here, mate.”
But they were also the Legacy Games, two weeks in which the suddenly humbled and human came back to show they weren’t done amazing us; that they still had gold in their churning legs and their powerful strokes.
The host country truly was Great Britain. London delivered a rousing Olympics. I wasn’t in Beijing, but the consensus is these were the most organized, enthralling and enjoyable Games since Sydney in 2000.
The English-snob caricature is often pawned off as a societal narrative, but it doesn’t fit anymore. The U.K. hasn’t had that high opinion of itself for a while. Slate-gray days of rain. The gradual drain of global importance of a once-omnipotent empire, all the wrenching losses their national teams have suffered on the soccer pitch.
As my friend Ian Whittell of The Times of London explained, “We’ve been Cubs fans longer than Cubs fans. We’re naturally pessimistic. Even with the Olympics. We were convinced the transportation system would fail. When that didn’t fail, we were convinced the teams and athletes would.”