LONDON — Rio mayor Eduardo Paes was worried about what his mop-topped counterpart would do at Sunday night’s Closing Ceremonies. “I’m just scared he’ll do something crazy when he hands over the flag,” he said. Like deliver it by zipline across the top of the stadium. Was there anyone who didn’t see the YouTube moment of Boris Johnson stranded and dangling above Victoria Park waving the Union Jack?
If the London hosts opened this global rave-up with Her Majesty parachuting out of the royal chopper with James Bond, what would they do for a finale? What they did was trot out every British cultural icon from decades past — from George Michael to Kate Moss to Annie Lennox to the Spice Girls to The Who — and turned over the party list to Rio de Janeiro, which in 2016 will be the first South American city to host the Summer Games.
And when his moment came “BoJo” did precisely what the script called for, the double handoff of the five-ringed Olympic flag with IOC president Jacques Rogge as middleman. “These were happy and glorious Games,” proclaimed Rogge, who’ll be stepping down next year when his term ends.
The Games of the XXX Olympiad were presaged with death and dread seven years ago. The morning after London won the bid ahead of favored Paris, a quartet of homegrown suicide bombers blew themselves up on the Tube and on a double-decker bus and took more than 50 of their fellow citizens with them.
So the government went with a military level of security, arranging surface-to-air missiles on rooftops, stationing a helicopter carrier in the Thames, and deploying 18,500 troops. “They will not be running around with machine guns,” Rogge assured those who feared that the Games wouldn’t be fun.
If that much protection could be unobtrusive, it was. “This way, if you please, sir,” young men from Yorkshire in combat boots, camouflage, and berets just back from Afghanistan would tell foreigners lining up at metal detectors. The organizers hadn’t planned on using that many soldiers but when the private security firm they’d hired came up several thousand short last month, they had to call in the reserves.
For a city that had seven years to plan the details, there were a surprising number of glitches. While empty seats are routine at every Olympics, LOCOG had no plan to redistribute tickets, irking citizens who’d been shut out of the lottery. The mass transport from the stadium after the Opening Ceremonies took longer than it should have. The wrong anthem was played for the North Korean women’s soccer team.
Though everything eventually was sorted out, one might have expected more foresight from folks that once administered an empire. Yet on the whole, these Games were a smashing success. “When our time came, Britain, we did it right,” chief organizer Sebastian Coe told his countrymen at the Closing Ceremonies.
While the Queen’s subjects may be renowned for their reserve, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves for these 17 days and lifted their stiff upper lips to flash a welcoming smile to all. They painted their faces red, white, and blue, wrapped themselves in Union Jacks, and yelled themselves hoarse. And when the gold rush finally began after four barren days, the UK, as Coe observed, became “a nation of delirious cheerleaders.”
Not since 1908, when they first hosted the Games, had the British hauled in such a stash of precious metal. Their 65 medals, 29 of them gold, put them fourth in the overall standings behind the US, China, and Russia. Their wry observation about their athletes excelling at the sitting-down sports turned out to be true, with 35 coming from rowing, cycling, sailing, canoeing, and equestrian events. But the British cheered Ugandans, Koreans, Jamaicans, Germans, and Yanks with equal enthusiasm.
The organizers had promised a Games for Everyone and they were. For the first time every nation had both men and women on its team, every sport had events for both genders, and a double amputee with prostheses — South African runner Oscar Pistorius — not only competed against able-bodied rivals, he also anchored his country’s mile relay.
London, the only city to host the Games three times, was where the world came when it was on the verge of coming apart in 1908, when it was trying to piece itself back together in 1948, and now, when it is dealing with political upheaval and economic distress. There is a certain stability and eternity to a city whose time is a reference point for the planet and whose landmarks are universally recognized.
Not only did they turn Queen Elizabeth into an actress (one take is all she needed), they got her to let them transform Horse Guards Parade, the site of her annual birthday procession, into a playpen for beach volleyball. That won’t be necessary in Rio, where they’ll have all the sand they need at Copacabana. The next edition of the Games won’t have Big Ben, but it will have barbacoa and a samba beat. “The beauty of the Olympics is that in every city you experience a different culture,” said Rio chief organizer Leonardo Gryner. “In Brazil, we like to party.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.