Big Ben chimed to mark the beginning of the end inside the Olympic Stadium, where the wonderwall of music included a virtual Freddie Mercury and a jolly postscript echoing Monty Python: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Four years after the militant efficiency of Beijing 2008, George Michael crooned “Freedom 90,” an impromptu anthem for the irreverent London Games. “We Will Rock You,” the British promised. And with surprisingly few major gaffes, they did.
The group Madness sang “Our House,” and that’s what these Olympics were. Britain threw a party for the world, but, first and foremost, for itself.
The Games were strewn with references to Britishness, some obscure and some not — organizers crammed the world’s athletes onto a stage cut in the form of a Union Jack at the Closing Ceremonies. If we had a good time, it was because we were along for the ride.
Urged on by massive home crowds and a cheerleading press that defied predictions of Olympic cynicism, British athletes ran, cycled and rowed their way to their highest medal count since Britannia ruled the seas in 1908.
At these Games, the United States and China might be coming home with more gold, but this country of 62 million people that is roughly the size of Michigan reminded itself of its uncanny ability to punch above its weight.
The Sunday Telegraph proudly challenged, “Who thinks Britain is rubbish now?”
Though the British may wake up with an Olympic-spirit hangover Monday and remember their famously naysayer reserve, two weeks of infectious excitement seemed to spread optimism across a land mired in recession and still scarred from the urban riots that rocked London this time last year.
For now, those images have been replaced by those of Britain’s giddy 18-year-old diver Tom Daley celebrating like a frat boy after winning a mere bronze, immigrant runner Mo Farah in shock after his second gold, and the beautiful smile of this nation’s own million-dollar baby, Nicola Adams, who entered the record books as one of the first female boxers to top the medal stand in a sport that only this year let women compete.
In a country with an uncomfortable relationship with aspiration, where the successful are often seen as overly earnest sellouts, the inspiration of the moment may indeed fade fast, many here concede. The choices of aging rock stars and a homage to London of decades gone by as the headlining themes Sunday also suggested less a look forward than a certain clinging to Britain’s past. But like the doses of British beet juice that have become the energy drink of choice among so many Olympians, the London Games have seemed to be nothing if not a $15 billion national pick-me-up.