Look back in wonder: London 2012 Olympics' most memorable and magical photographs

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Contorted faces, interlocking limbs, tattooed flesh: beyond the gold medal tally, the London Games also celebrated the human body, pushed to its limit. John Walsh introduces some unforgettable images.

The Olympic spirit of 2012, captured in the camera's lens – how should it look? Lots of faces contorted by grim endeavour, lots of tears and hugging, lots of arm and leg muscles distended by over-use into twisted helical strings, several statuesque lady hurdlers to ogle, many swimmers' torsos to marvel at – we knew what to expect, didn't we?

Actually, we didn't know the half of it. On every day of the Olympics fortnight, sports photographers introduced us to something akin to a new planet. As if inspired by some seraphic team pep-talk, a thousand snappers caught the wild, strange beauty of the Games like never before.

London, for instance. When did the metropolis ever look like that? Horse Guards Parade, reinvented as a sand arena for the beach volleyball event, became impossibly photogenic, a yellow plaque of light in the dusk, backed by the domes of Old Admiralty. The equestrian events recreated Greenwich Park as a natural arena, surrounded on three sides by flag-waving zealots, the fourth side looking towards Canary Wharf. The London Eye became a kind of honorary spectator, its great horned circle calmly eyeballing the action while crowds cheered and whistled in the foreground.

The unearthliness of the human body was explored in a thousand images. Has there been a longer torso in the history of evolution than Michael Phelps's? Photographers could only strive to cram it all in. And those who claim that the American multi-medallist long ago mutated into a flying fish will have their suspicions confirmed by sub-aquatic shots of his butterfly technique, showing that he appears to have grown wings. But water – the first element – does freakish things to many contenders. The faces of participants in the Springboard Diving were contorted with concentration and what looked like terror, as their bodies writhed through the air in twists and twirls and sinuous, gravity-defying curlicues. The synchronised swimmers occupied a photographic category of their own, their graceful mirror-duets often edged with scariness as they lifted disembodied limbs above the water or extended their perfect arms to flirt with unseen victims.

Intertwined bodies were everywhere: in the Greco-Roman wrestling, in the women's judo, among the synchronised Naiads. The camera captured the nose of a massive Bulgarian wrestler wearily crushed against a Romanian's granite shoulder, and found pathos in the sight, as if the big man were looking for a shoulder to rest (or cry) on. And was there a more charming sight than that of Kenya's Ezekiel Kemboi with his legs wrapped around the waist of France's Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benebbad as they celebrated their (respective) gold and silver in the men's 3,000m steeplechase?

The variety of human display and adornment knew no bounds. Usain Bolt's drawing-back-an-arrow gesture is now practically old-hat. Mo Farah's 'Mobot' gesture was dreamt up on a TV sports panel show last year. But the cameras caught far more exotic sights: the face-paint, glitter and Swarovski crystals on the face of DeeDee Trotter; the extraordinary number of tattoos on swimmers and sprinters; the bizarre striations of that muscle-injury 'Kinesio tape' that turns the necks, shoulders and torsos of athletes into orange barcodes, turquoise prison bars or lumps of gift-wrapped flesh; and the ever-more-streamlined cycling helmets, tapering from the head to a fine point somewhere around the thoracic vertebra, turning the participants into stylish and colourful extras in Alien Velodrome. It's sport, Jim – but not as we know it.

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