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Glittering end to an English party

The last act of London 2012 was a raucous pageant of popular culture that enthralled the world, displaying a capacity to charm and amaze.

other Updated: Aug 13, 2012 23:53 IST

The great festival that began with the stirring resonances of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony came to a poignant end with a light-hearted pageant of British popular culture.

An exploding Reliant Robin featured, along with Take That and the Spice Girls, the voices of John Lennon and Freddie Mercury, Tim Spall as Winston Churchill, Julian Lloyd Webber, Kate Moss in Alexander McQueen, an airborne Darcey Bussell, Madness, the Pet Shop Boys, Ray Davies singing Waterloo Sunset, and the thousands of athletes from 204 countries who had kept us enthralled and enraptured.

To follow Boyle's Isles of Wonder with Kim Gavin's Symphony of British Music was a bit like switching from Ready Steady Go! to Top of the Pops, albeit with the same mind-boggling shuffling of scenery, dazzling choreography and brilliant use of lighting.

British sports cars of the 1960s circled the track and giant models of the Albert Hall and the Shard were replaced by a shattered sculpture reformed to create the face of Lennon while the crowd sang the words to Imagine.

Musical treat

It was, as promised, more cacophonous than symphonic. Bradley Wiggins will have loved the parade of 50 Vespas and Lambrettas, lights blazing and raccoon tails rampant, that accompanied Kaiser Chiefs' ardent version of Pinball Wizard.

Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and Taio Cruz performed from moving Rolls-Royce convertibles, like an extended advert for the best of British bling, while Russell Brand sang I Am the Walrus from a psychedelic bus that metamorphosed into a giant transparent octopus from which Fatboy Slim delivered a short DJ set. When the Spice Girls sang from the top of black cabs, the Olympics seemed to have turned into the Motor Show.

Last of all, after the speeches, Rio de Janeiro's preview of 2016 and the extinguishing of Thomas Heatherwick's cauldron, came the surviving members of the Who, closing the Games with the adrenaline shot of My Generation, although the real anthem of London 2012 had undoubtedly been David Bowie's Heroes.

There was no message, and nor did there need to be, except "Wasn't it fun?" and "Aren't we great?"

So much about the reality of London 2012 seemed surprising, even unprecedented. Some of us had thought Britain probably retained the capacity to host another Austerity Games, with a small budget and reduced expectations, like the one in 1948, but harboured doubts about what we might accomplish with the temptation of unlimited resources. Such fears now seem small-minded in the light of an event that began with an explosion of goodwill and never lost its capacity to charm and to amaze.

Money, money

These Games cost an absurd amount of money, of course, even with the subsidies provided by multinational sponsors whose presence often seemed incongruous and intrusive. But in an overcrowded city where people are accustomed to fighting for an inch of road or pavement, and where rich and poor are growing steadily further apart, benevolence was everywhere.

The 70,000 unpaid gamesmakers set the tone, as they have done — sometimes with mixed results — since volunteers were first recruited in 1948. This time they represented all backgrounds and age groups, from students to retirees. During festivities six of them stepped forward to receive flowers from representatives of the athletes, including the gold-medal-winning rower Katherine Grainger.

Memories forever

But the enduring memory of these Games will be of the sort of astonishment that crept over the face of a 20-year-old British competitor in the 400m hurdles when he was introduced to the crowd before his heat on the first morning of competition in the Olympic stadium.

He had his game face on. As he stood over his blocks while his fellow competitors were introduced, his eyes were a blank. There was not a flicker when his own name was announced. "In lane eight, Jack Green of Great Britain." And then he heard the noise.

He had never heard anything like it. No one had. Eighty thousand spectators were cheering him as though he already had a gold medal around his neck. There was nothing for it. The stern facade cracked and a smile escaped. It would linger on the faces of competitors and spectators alike for the rest of the Games. The noise never stopped, either. It crashed around the stadium, the Copper Box, the ExCeL, Centre Court and the velodrome.

In the boxing hall it was measured at 113.7 decibels: louder than a jumbo jet at take-off, or so they said.

It almost swamped Andy Murray, whose emotional response to his victory said everything about the unique effect of the Olympics on an athlete who probably thought he had seen and felt everything.

Informal, unpretentious, sometimes delightfully unguarded, Britain's athletes displayed personal characteristics worth far more than any number of gold medals. Morning after morning they made the journey to the BBC's breakfast TV sofa, where they provided a living exhibition of the qualities — modesty, patience, unselfishness, courage, judgement, concentration, resilience, co-operation, gratitude — that sport can help to instill while also building bodies.