James Lawton: Over to you, Boris

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

London's Mayor accepts the challenge to better Beijing

Something forlorn and regrettable happened here last night. The greatest Olympics we have ever seen, and perhaps ever will, quite unavoidably came to an end.

When they did it, it was hard not to feel a shiver of sympathy for Boris Johnson as he was handed maybe the heaviest baton ever passed on in the history of organised sport.

The Mayor of London, plainly conscious that he was standing in the gaze of the world, threw up so many hearty salutes to Olympic and Chinese government dignitaries, and even one young volunteer, that you worried he had mistaken the closing ceremony of the 29th Summer Games for a passing-out parade at Sandhurst. However, he accepted the Olympic flag with some reverence, carefully unfurling it before waving it in traditional fashion. And when old rocker Jimmy Page, east end pop star Leona Lewis, and Leytonstone native David Beckham emerged from a gleaming red London bus to cheers from 91,000 spectators in the Bird's Nest stadium, there was no doubt London had cleverly pitched its call to the stage as host of the 2012 Olympics.

Implicit in the eight-minute handover sequence was that if London was to succeed it would do so on its own terms – and its vastly inferior budget.

It couldn't make a better Games than Beijing, not in scale and staging and faultless organisation but it could be distinctively different, and, yes, maybe a little more relaxed in its welcome to the world as one of the great cosmopolitan cities.

None of this made it less of a wrench for anyone who loves sport to bid farewell to Beijing.

For two seamless weeks charged with drama and heart and sometimes terrible poignancy, along with 38 world and 85 Olympic records, sport, not just British sport – though it has been an exceptional case – found its soul again.

Everywhere you went you found competition that seemed to matter more than you could ever remember and that was true in every corner of the Games, not just the showpiece spectacles provided by the men of the Games, Jamaica's world-record shattering sprinter, Usain Bolt, and Michael Phelps, who employed his giant condor wingspan in his successful pursuit of a record eight gold medals in one Olympics – and a staggering accumulation of 14 in two Olympics, which made him, statistically at least, the greatest Olympian of all time.

Jacques Rogge, the Belgian president of the International Olympic Committee, was obliged, like all his predecessors to make grateful noises to the hosts when he stepped up to the microphone but, over the years, there has developed a form of presidential language carefully avoids comparing one Olympics to another. The old formula announcing the best-ever Olympics every four years was necessarily scrapped by Rogge's predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, after the disaster of Atlanta in 1996, a grisly mix of crass commercialism and failed security. Four years ago, Rogge thanked Athens for "dream games", which covered everything, including huge budget overrides and the scandal of the Greeks' star sprinters running, literally, from drug testers.

Last night, though, Rogge was unambiguous in his praise of China's extraordinary effort to make great Games – and the astonishing response of the athletes of the world.

The IOC president declared: "Tonight we come to the end of 16 glorious days which we will cherish forever. Thank you to the people of China; through these Games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world. Athletes from 204 National Olympic Committees came to these dazzling venues and awed us with their talent. These were truly exceptional games."

The lawyer from Brussels, an ex-Olympic rower, could have gone further, even for those of us weary of the years of double-speak and compromise and manipulation that that has so often marked Olympic politics.

He could have said that these were indeed the greatest Olympics of all time.

They were great for Britain, winning more medals and claiming more glory than at any time since the gas-lit Edwardian days of 1908, but they were also great for the idea of sport as something that can carry the mood of nations to another dimension.

Such must have been the hope of the watching, embattled Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who – after west London boxer James DeGale landed Britain's 19th gold medal with a victory over Cuban Emilio Correa – might have been reflecting on the claim of his predecessor Harold Wilson that England's 1966 football World Cup victory had a crucial effect on a general election. Certainly, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, and Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, have not been slow to claim credit for the extraordinary British success here, having donated £265m of lottery money to the Beijing campaign.

How much China spent on the Olympics, which ended with a breathtaking blaze of fireworks, almost certainly will never be disclosed, though the region of £20bn is one guess.

Nor will there be any easy settling of the argument about China's right to stage something which is supposed to be a shining festival of youth, despite a human rights record that provoked bitter protests from the moment the IOC awarded the Games to Beijing seven years ago.

For the moment though, such issues do little to abate the sense that, in sport at least, a precious time last night came to an end.

London, under the leadership of Olympic hero Sebastian Coe, may, against the odds, create a similar magical interlude in 2012, but it will take the most ferocious commitment and organisation and vision for London not to suffer by comparison with what has happened here.

What happened here was a reborn passion for the joy and the pain of competitive sport.

It is certainly no hardship to admit that during the past two weeks and a few days, no morning came that was too smoggy or humid or wet to take the edge off that question former Olympic champion Muhammad Ali immortalised in the simple phrase, "Who's gonna win, who's gonna win?"

Of course it was applied most to events such as the 100m dash of the beautiful and the usually damned, won so unforgettably by Bolt, and the swim that took Phelps to a unique place in Olympic sport and the latest classic instalment of the British rowing four's superb resilience, when the heirs of Sir Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent fought back against the tough Australian boat to take still another gold, but it was also conjured in the strangest places. Places such as the ping pong hall and the beach volleyball arena.

Yes, beach volleyball, the absurd, bikini-clad sex ploy of the Olympics, pitted, of all nations, Georgia against Russia, and Georgia, with the help of their Brazilian mercenaries, won. China's women, who only discovered the game existed when they reached adulthood, fought in the sand against two former Californian beach children, Misty and Kerry, and stretched them to their limits in the gold medal match. The Americans were winning, just, their 108th straight match.

Everywhere, there was the compulsion of sport finding its best, and, maybe indeed its soul.

After Beijing, London no doubt faces a huge challenge. But it is a privilege, too.

The city will not want for a world eager to see more.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn