Empty seats and security concerns at the London Olympics turned into capacity crowds, smiling faces and Britain’s biggest medal haul in more than a century.
Sometimes it seemed, as the Beatles sang 45 years ago, “All you need is love.”
U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps set the record for most Olympic medals at 22, and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt became the first sprinter to win three gold medals in two straight Summer Games. The U.S. topped the standings in both gold and total medals.
Transportation generally moved people to the games and the rest of London as scheduled. Safety, cast under a cloud when G4S Plc, the world’s biggest security company, said it wouldn’t be able to deliver all the 10,000 guards it had pledged for the games, was praised for friendliness and efficiency, and no security breaches were reported. British athletes finished third in the medals standings with their most gold and total medals in 104 years.
“Everything seems to be smooth, the people are very friendly, the volunteers are friendly,” David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and NBC Radio commentator who has been to 15 Olympics, said in an interview two days before the games ended. “It’s more of an Olympic atmosphere than in Beijing, overwhelmingly so.”
Four years ago in the Chinese capital, Wallechinsky said, he couldn’t get any response from the locals about what they thought of the games. People had been told not to talk with foreigners, he said. That certainly wasn’t the case in London.
“These London Olympics have been off the chain,” said DeeDee Trotter, a member of U.S. track’s gold medal 1,600-meter relay team. “I’ve never seen a morning session packed out that way. I’ve never been in a stadium where everyone knows what’s going on. They love every athlete, it doesn’t matter what country you come from.”
The 2012 Games, the third in the capital city’s history after 1908 and 1948, ended last night with the closing ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in east London. Athletes danced to performances by George Michael, The Who and the Spice Girls.
After rows of empty seats were visible during the first weekend of the games, thousands of tickets for sold-out events were made available daily to the public. The track and field events in the second week of the games took place daily in front of a capacity crowd of more than 80,000, while tens of thousands of spectators lined the routes of the cycling road race, triathlons and marathons, at times in heavy downpours.
The U.S. won the women’s soccer gold medal against Japan before 80,203 fans, the biggest crowd ever to watch the sport’s female players at an Olympics.
“Overall, it’s been a success, it’s been an efficient and well-run games,” Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the Coventry University Business School in England, said in an interview. “What happened with G4S really showed how meticulous the planning had been. There was a Plan B, and they put it into place.”
An extra 1,200 British military personnel were deployed, taking the total amount of troops at the games to 18,200.
“You have shown the world the best of British hospitality,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said last night at the closing ceremony, where the Olympic flame was extinguished. “These were happy and glorious games.”
Bolt, a 25-year-old Jamaican and a self-described “living legend” after he successfully defended his 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter relay titles, was among the biggest stars. Phelps won six medals, including four golds, taking his total to 22 and surpassing former Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time. British sailor Ben Ainslie captured the medal record in his sport with a fourth gold, while Canadian rider Ian Millar became the only athlete to compete in 10 games.
The U.S. men’s basketball team beat Spain for the gold medal, just as it did in Beijing. LeBron James, who scored 19 points in the final yesterday, joined Hall of Fame player Michael Jordan in winning a National Basketball Association championship, Most Valuable Player awards for both the NBA season and the league finals, and an Olympic gold medal in one year.
The U.S. finished with 46 gold medals and 104 total, reclaiming the championship title it lost to China in 2008. China finished second in both counts this time, at 38 gold medals among 87 in all. Britain was third in golds with 29 and had 65 overall, its best showing since 1908.
Bolt’s relationship with the crowds who flocked to watch him peaked when he started a wave among the fans after landing his third gold in the 400-meter relay two days ago. He pleaded to keep the baton which he and his three teammates used to break the world record, and finally got it.
“It’s just something to remind me of London,” Bolt said of the metal tube he’s taking back to the Caribbean.
The 70,000 volunteers who helped at the games provided a backdrop of purple shirts and khaki slacks.
“We come from all different backgrounds,” said Susan Goggin, a 71-year-old retired secretary from the London suburbs and a volunteer at the main Olympic Stadium. “Life is different for youngsters today from when I was young. Hopefully I’ve passed things on to them about just being caring, not taking everything for granted, and that a smile goes a long way.”
Trotter, a bronze medalist in the 400 meters, said it was “awesome” to have the athletes’ village built adjacent to the Westfield Stratford shopping mall. During the games, athletes, officials, media and spectators shopped, strolled and relaxed with a drink in bars and coffee shops until the early hours of the morning.
“You can’t walk through without them hugging you, or giving you high fives, congratulating you on just being you,” Trotter said. “You don’t have to have a medal. If they knew you are an athlete, they were really supportive. Was it chaos? Yes. Was it good chaos? Absolutely.”
London’s opening ceremony, which featured sheep, horses, dancing National Health Service nurses, a tribute to British engineering and the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, turning into a Bond Girl as she acted in a skit with 007 actor Daniel Craig, cost 27 million pounds. Four years ago, 14,000 performers welcomed the world to Beijing beneath 30,000 fireworks at the Bird’s Nest stadium to start a two-week spectacle that officially cost $67 billion. The London Games had a budget of 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion).
The British team’s achievements secured future funding.
U.K. Sport received about 100 million pounds a year from the government and the National Lottery for high-performance sport in Britain in the run-up to London.
The U.K. government yesterday announced it would boost spending to around 125 million pounds a year over the next four years.
The extra money will make a big difference, according to Chris Hoy, a track cyclist who last week became the first Briton to win six gold medals.
“I am old enough to remember a time when things were run on a shoestring budget before National Lottery and government investment transformed British Olympic sport,” said Hoy, 36. “Having these guarantees for the future will be a huge boost.”