LONDON - Seventeen days ago, before Usain Bolt again proved himself the planet’s fastest human, before a man with fiber legs competed against able-bodied athletes, before Michael Phelps won more medals than anyone in Olympic history and American gymnast Gabby Douglas made her own for a person of color, before more questions about doping arose and female badminton players brought disgrace to the games, the goal was to inspire generations.
It was an ambitious objective in which London 2012 fell short.
Which isn’t to say the games lacked substance.
How boring can something be when an American judo athlete gets busted for eating marijuana-laced brownies?
Which, given it was the only positive drug test of the games, is a victory in itself.
They closed these Olympics on Sunday evening with a ceremony that honored the British people, their music and culture, their spirit and perseverance. It was a symphony to old and young, with performances from Spice Girls to Annie Lennox to George Michael to The Who to One Direction, the latter for which I could hear my daughter’s squeals all the way from Las Vegas.
You had to think the games would improve after a rather forgettable beginning, and once organizers realized the South Korean flag wouldn’t be welcomed by North Korean athletes and someone put Mitt Romney on the first plane out of Heathrow, things settled into a daily consistency of memorable performances, compelling storylines and, by some, a blatant disregard for rules.
But there were no iconic moments, no snapshots by which to truly define the legacy of these games.
Unless you count offering the largest McDonald’s in the world as something of extraordinary importance.
“Our Opening Ceremony was about having a games for everyone,” said Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organizing committee. “At our closing, we can say it was a games by everyone. We have seen what tenacity can do, what ambition can do, what imagination can do … When our time came, Britain, we did it right.”
Mostly, the athletes did.
We said this wouldn’t be Beijing in any form, that for London to try and compete with or compare to the excellence of 2008 wasn’t at all realistic. On most fronts, that proved true.
Bolt set world records in the 100, 200 and 4X100 relay in Beijing; he set one here in the relay. Phelps won eight gold medals in Beijing; he won four here.
But there was more soul to these games than in China, more genuine emotion. Tears fell from those watching amputee runner Oscar Pistorius compete for South Africa, for Britain’s lovefest with runner Mo Farah, for the four Islamic nations that fielded female athletes, no matter how contrived and controlled a ploy it seemed by the International Olympic Committee.
They played beach volleyball steps from Buckingham Palace, shot arrows at Lord’s Cricket Ground and watched favored son Andy Murray win tennis gold at Wimbledon, venues of such historic significance, it was surreal beyond words.
London wanted these to be the first social media games, which probably means Hope Solo was just trying to do her part with all the foolish tweeting. But when she stuck to talking on the soccer field through her play, she was brilliant when it mattered most for the United States.
So too were many other American female athletes, who won 29 golds to 17 for the men. The U.S. again captured the overall medals count, putting to rest for now those opinions that we should follow the lead of China and immediately take all 6-year olds from their homes to enroll them in government run sports academies.
You will not find an Olympics without some sort of misconduct and London obliged. There was a boxing scandal with a judge, which, more than anything, made me feel right at home; the Chinese female badminton players spit in the face of the Olympic oath by losing on purpose, and were followed by those from South Korea and Indonesia; there was a fencing scandal when a clock malfunctioned; a cyclist from Great Britain admitted to crashing on purpose to receive a re-start.
Two athletes running for spots on an IOC Commission were even removed from the ballot for distributing free lollipops inside the village to potential voters. Had they handed out condoms, it would have been a landslide victory.
The games seemed all thrown together in an unsophisticated, clumsy sort of way, with temporary structures dominating Olympic Park, some of which might be torn down before you read this. Seriously. I can hear hammering. It’s 3 a.m. The smell of new paint was everywhere, as if they put on final coats just hours before the world arrived.
But in a very Monty Python sort of way, it worked. London was a safe games, a fun games, where fears of terrorist attacks were unfounded and predictions of transportation nightmares never reached such embarrassing heights.
I have covered two summer Olympics now and don’t know if I have yet enjoyed dealing with an athlete more than Connor Fields, the BMX star whose slow start in the final here doomed his medal chances. But more than anyone, he gets it, appreciates the moment, understands its enormity, is truly honored to represent his country.
“We lit the flame,” Coe said of London’s efforts, ” and we lit up the world.”
Here’s the thing: It takes a lot to inspire generations. London gave it a good shot in hosting its third Olympics and fell short, but that doesn’t mean the visions of Phelps and Bolt and Pistorius won’t remain and the stories about pot-filled brownies and out-of-control badminton players won’t bring a smile for years to come, or at least until we see what those crazy Brazilians put in their desserts four years from now in Rio de Janeiro.
Four years ago, IOC president Jacques Rogge called Beijing a, “Truly exceptional games.” Sunday night, he called those in London, “Happy and glorious.”
You get his point: The British throw one hell of a party, if you like cucumber sandwiches.
Ed Graney is a sports columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He also is writing an Olympics blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/graney Follow him on Twitter @edgraney He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org