Gary Shelton at the Games: London puts on fine, fun, fabulous Olympics

Published August 13 2012
Updated August 13 2012


The Greatest Olympian of All Time said farewell. The World's Fastest Man breezed past. The Flying Squirrel soared.

Yeah, these Games were good.

The Missile launched her career. The Turtle ended hers. The Fastest Man on No Legs inspired the world.

All in all, you would have to say that London performed splendidly.

These were fine Olympics, fun Olympics, fabulous Olympics. It is true they lacked the staggering venues of China in 2008 and the quaint charm of Australia in 2000 and the raw beauty of Barcelona in 1992, but they were terrific nonetheless. The moments were huge, and the controversies were small, and the host country improved its shaky self-image for the better. That's enough.

Here, things seemed to be a little more inconvenient. Some of the arenas never felt quite finished, and others seemed to have been erected hastily from Legos. Compared with the spare-no-expense-or-oppression Games in Beijing, this seemed to be more of a discount Olympics, as if the rings had been marked down for quick sale.

But is any of that how you judge the Olympics? Don't you judge them by the joy they provide and the athletes who perform? Don't you judge them by how long the moments stay with you?

If those are the standards, the Brits were, as they say, spot on.

• • •

"I expected to do better, but the weights were too heavy."

Manuel Minginfel, Micronesian weight lifter

• • •

The moments

In England, naturally you start with a crown. The amazing Michael Phelps — arguably the greatest Olympian of them all — wrapped up a career that included 22 medals, 18 of them gold.

For Phelps, the impressive thing this time was not the perfection he showed in Beijing but the resiliency he showed after being beaten badly (by more than four seconds) in his first final, finishing fourth to rival Ryan Lochte. But champions don't swallow water for long. Phelps came back to win four golds and two silvers, including winning his other head-to-head battle with Lochte.

There was the dazzling Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive. Bolt won the 100- and 200-meter races again, repeating his 2008 Olympics. Forget the noise from NFL players. They couldn't catch him, either.

There were others: swimmer Missy "the Missile" Franklin and gymnast Gabby "the Flying Squirrel" Douglas and beach volleyball legend Misty May-Treanor, a.k.a. the "Turtle." There was Hope Solo and Allyson Felix and decathlete Ashton Eaton.

None of them, however, was as inspiring as Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner." Pistorius is the South African sprinter who had his lower legs amputated as a baby and runs on curved blades amid cries he actually has an advantage over runners with limbs. The sight of Pistorius flashing around the track has given hope to a lot of people.

There were other inspirational moments, too. American Kayla Harrison, a victim of sexual abuse by a former coach, channeled her energy into winning a gold in judo. American sprinter Manteo Mitchell fractured a fibula, but continued to race in his 1,600 relay heat. After winning her gold, American boxer Claressa Shields talked about running "past crackheads and drug addicts" to workouts.

There were pioneers. Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first female Olympian from Saudi Arabia when she competed in judo. Syria competed here. And Yemen. If the Olympics are to mean anything beyond competition, after all, it is in the growth of sport.

"Girls are only allowed to train inside the stadium," said sprinter Fatima Dahman of her country, Yemen. "If anyone sees you training outside, they will push you and shout at you, saying 'stay home' and other rude stuff. If I want to train outside, I have to wait until it gets dark, because no one can see me then."

Then there was sheer excellence: Alex Morgan headed in a ball to lead the American soccer team past Canada in the semifinals in overtime. Eaton won the decathlon. China's Lin Dan, "Super Dan," won another badminton gold. There were celebrations and tears and flags flying in the English evenings.

Also, there was basketball.

• • •

"They picked me for a doping test. They simply cannot believe that such a great body can be built without any banned stuff."

Zoltan Szecsi, Hungarian water polo player

• • •

The controversies

There was no Ben Johnson moment here, like when his 100-meter win in 1988 was erased by a failed drug test. There was no larcenous judging verdicts like the one that cost boxer Roy Jones Jr. a medal in 1988.

Oh, there was some fuss. North Korea was outraged when, for some reason, its soccer athletes were introduced on the stadium scoreboard next to a photo of the South Korean flag. The North Koreans also didn't like it very much when Mx, an Australian newspaper, referred to them as "Naughty Korea" and South Korea as "Nice Korea."

There was the badminton scandal, when eight swatters were expelled for not trying hard enough. There were the racist Twitter postings from Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou that got her kicked out.

There was the runner from St. Kitts and Nevis, Kim Collins, who was kicked off of his country's team for what he said was checking into a hotel room with his wife. "Even men in prison get to visit their wives," he said.

Sometimes there were silly controversies, too. The fury over Douglas' hair. The firestorm over Serena Williams' post-gold-medal-winning dance. U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo ripping NBC commentator Brandi Chastain. Bolt ripping Carl Lewis. Russian team handball coach Evgeny Trefilov ripping his team.

"I think they should all retire," Trefilov said.

• • •

"I will go and scratch my eyes and face and hit my head against the wall."

Ana Maria Branza, Romanian fencer, after losing

• • •

The disappointments

Has parity reached the Olympics? Some of the traditional powers — Russia, Germany, Australia — weren't what they have been.

And here's another group that wasn't: the men of the United States.

The American women were spectacular, so much so that they have shielded their male counterparts from criticism. Of the United States' 46 gold medals at these Games, the women won 29; of the men's 17, eight of those came in the pool.

What has happened? American boxing, the sport that gave us Muhammad Ali (who fought in the Olympics as Cassius Clay) and Joe Frazier and Oscar De La Hoya, didn't win a men's medal for the first time. (The lone U.S. medal in the sport, a gold, came from a woman in women's boxing's debut.) The sprinters spent their nights chasing Jamaicans. The men's soccer team didn't even qualify for the Olympics.

As you might expect, there were doping problems, this time including a race walker and two table tennis players. American judoka Nick Delpopolo was tossed out after he tested positive for what he said was eating a baked good with marijuana inside and, presumably, Cheetos.

• • •

"There will be a lot of partying and getting drunk next week. It's way too early to think about anything else."

Mark Hunter, British rower

• • •

The hosts

For years, there has been a familiar description about British Olympic prowess: The Brits perform well only when they are sitting down.

Pretty much it was true. For decades, the English rode bikes, and they sat in boats, and they rode horses. Everything else required a stiff upper lip and memories of the Chariots of Fire days.

This time, however, the Brits stood up. They finished fourth in total medals (65) and third in gold (29). They won in tennis, in triathlon, in boxing. Along the way, they tapped into a depth of British pride that hadn't been felt for decades. Just from the newspapers here, tennis player Andy Murray, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and cyclists Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins might as well be the Beatles.

Wrote Rupert Myers of the Daily Mail: "After mad cow disease, the death of Princess Diana, the floods, the economic crash, terrorism, the Iraq war, the rise of tween pop stars, reality television, Gordon Brown and international footballing wilderness, we finally have something we can all point to as an unsullied, shining example of the very best of us."

Well struck, in other words.

Does that mean the British team has joined the superpowers of the Olympics? We'll see. The home team usually surges in medals, but in the Olympics following their hosting, China, Greece, Australia and the United States all had some slippage.

For now, there are Union Jacks everywhere. As it turns out, there will always be an England.

From time to time, it can be counted on to host a jolly good show.