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James Lawton: Over to you, Boris

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.