British: 'We lit the flame, and we lit up the world'

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2012 - 7:18 AM

Typically calm Brits played their role with pride, patience and good humor.

LONDON - At the end of two weeks of competition -- not to mention seven years of preparation -- Olympic host cities often feel as anyone would after a two-week party. They will miss having the world hanging out with them, but they're ready to see everyone off and tidy up.

Britain seemed to have a much different reaction Sunday, when the curtain fell on the London Olympics with a riotous closing ceremony. When it was announced that it was time to extinguish the Olympic flame, 80,000 people in Olympic Stadium audibly sighed. A country that fretted over how it would pull off the Summer Games had embraced them thoroughly, so much so that it wasn't ready for them to end.

The London Olympics produced 44 world records, 117 Olympic records and an outpouring of national pride that caught many Brits off guard. A people known for their reserve found themselves painting their faces to cheer on equestrians and kayakers. They lined up in small towns to have their photos taken with mailboxes painted gold, in honor of their home-grown Olympic medalists.

The enthusiasm of the Brits put an Olympic spin on their favorite slogan, Keep Calm and Carry On. They carried on, all right, enveloping Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre and every other venue in a deafening din every time a British athlete appeared. By the end, it seemed impossible that this country had ever been unsure of its place in the world, or too reserved to step up and claim it.

"We lit the flame, and we lit up the world,'' said Lord Sebastian Coe, head of the London Olympics organizing committee. "The British people got behind London's bid, and they got behind London's Games. Our opening ceremony proclaimed these would be a Games for everyone. At our closing ceremony, we can say that these were a Games by everyone.''

Nearly 8 million spectators attended these Olympics, quieting the skeptics who predicted they would be a debacle. The worries about security never materialized. Public transportation ran smoothly most of the time, and the occasional bottlenecks were met with patience and good humor.

British athletes were overwhelmed by the ovations they received everywhere, from a public that embraced even those in the most obscure sports. There was some debate over whether it was unseemly to cheer for Brits to win; traditionally, this is a society that has always celebrated the effort rather than the outcome. That seemed to go out the window as soon as cyclist Bradley Wiggins and rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won Great Britain's first gold medals of the Games.

The home team's haul -- 29 golds and 65 medals overall -- placed it third in the medal count. The Americans, who led the medals table with 46 golds and 104 total medals, said the noise in some venues was the loudest they had heard -- and that it required a bit of imagination to keep from becoming unnerved. "You have to pretend they're cheering for you,'' said swimmer Missy Franklin, who did draw plenty of applause as she won four gold medals and one bronze in a star-making performance. Also representing well: nine of the 14 Team USA members with Minnesota ties are coming home with medals.

The Olympics showcased a modern, multicultural Britain. Its most celebrated athletes included the Somalia-born Mo Farah, who could be knighted after winning both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and being hailed by Coe -- a two-time Olympic champion in the 1,500 -- as the greatest runner in British history. Aristocrats and commoners cheered side by side, and even the royals got into the act, as Queen Elizabeth, Princes William and Harry and other members of the royal family turned up at many venues.

There were still a few naysayers. The singer Morrissey asked whether "England had ever been quite so foul with patriotism,'' yet others saw the Olympics as a means to move past some of the issues that have divided the country. Only a year ago, there was widespread rioting in London, set off by the shooting of a man by police.

Coe, Mayor Boris Johnson and others hoped the Olympics could bridge some of the social and economic rifts that troubled the country.

On Sunday, Britain came together one final time at the Olympic stadium to listen to the Who, the Spice Girls, Annie Lennox and other Britpop favorites. One of the highlights of the show came when comedian Eric Idle, of the Monty Python troupe, sang "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,'' and 80,000 people in the stadium whistled along with him. The Olympics were ending, but Coe and other Olympic officials hope the happy hangover lasts.

"We have seen in these days what tenacity can do, what ambition can do, what imagination can do,'' Coe said. "We know more now, as individuals and as a nation, just what we are capable of. I said that these Games would see the best of us. On this last day, I can finish with these words: When our time came, Britain, we did it right.''

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