The 2012 Summer Olympics ended last night, with a fun closing ceremonies. The Spice Girls reunited, the Who performed and Russell Brand infuriated thousands with his rendition of I Am the Walrus. But what I was looking forward to was the montage at the end. I love sports montages. Happy, sad, victorious or in defeat, something about them emotionally connects with me more than most things. As I was watching the NBC montage, I thought of all the stories that played out in the past 17 days. So in honor of the 30th Summer Olympiad, here are my favorite moments from this year’s Olympics, in no particular order.
1) The opening ceremonies were notable for many reasons, but for three countries, it was notable for something special: a woman represented them. For Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia, the 2012 Olympics was a small step towards equality. There is a long way to go but small steps are important.
2) The preliminary heats of the track events often drifted together but one of the preliminary heats for 110 meter men’s hurdles stood out. 2004 gold medalist Liu Xiang of China was in London to take back the gold but he hit the first hurdle and re-injured his Achilles tendon. What happened next earned Xiang a standing ovation and the respect of every athlete that has strapped on a bandage or iced a sore knee. He walked back to the tunnel to leave but stopped, before turning back and limping down the course next to the hurdles. When he reached the final set, he leaned down and kissed the hurdle he would have leaped, before limping across the finish line. His competitors, watching, carried him to the medical tent.
3) Michael Phelps. What can you say? 22 medals, 18 golds. The man retires as the most accomplished swimmer, and in terms of medal count, athlete ever. His performance at Beijing was more dominant but his time in London felt just as powerful. An older, wiser Phelps took a back seat and watched the rest of the swimming team take over. But he retires with grace and as a winner.
4) Speaking of the rest of the swimming team, what a performance. Ryan Lochte wasn’t quite the challenger to Phelps we expected, but Nathan Adrian, Cullen Jones, Matthew Grevers, Tyler Clary will carry the men in to Rio. Meanwhile, the women’s future looks possibly even better, with Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Allison Schmitt and Rebecca Soni all at the top of their games. It started with Phelps, but it seems like a new generation of American swimmers is ready to take over.
5) Oscar Pistorius competed in two events and didn’t medal in either. In fact, his South African 4 x 400 relay team came in 8th of 9th finalists. He was just another athlete amongst the 10,000 in London. Except he was a runner who lost his legs and competed on artificial prosthetic legs. Except he had to face people who claimed his artifical legs gave him an advantage. But he competed with the rest of the so-called able-bodied athletes. So yes, the Blade Runner was just another athlete in London, which was exactly how he wanted it.
6) Jessica Ennis was the poster girl of these Olympics. Born in the city of Sheffield in north Great Britain, she was held up as the golden girl of the host country. Known as Jess in the UK, she had the weight of 65,000,000 people on her shoulders. And in the women’s heptathlon, Ennis won gold, crossing the finish line in the 800 meter race as the stadium shook around her. The golden child came through when it mattered most.
7) One of the few events Michael Phelps competed in but didn’t win was the 200 meter butterfly. Instead, the victor, by five hundredths of a second, was South African Chad Le Clos. Le Clos idolized Phelps as he grew up. Seconds after winning, still floating in the pool, Phelps congratulated Le Clos as applause rang down. After the race, Le Clos’ father was interviewed on the BBC and became an international sensation with his reaction to his son’s victory. Bert Le Clos was overcome with joy, repeatedly stating how proud he was, and how handsome his boy looked. On that night, no one could disagree.
8) Gymnastics is the sport that exemplifies how American’s view the Olympics. Outside of this 17-day stretch, the vast majority (not all) of Americans don’t follow gymnastics. Two months ago, no one outside of the gymnastics world knew the names of Kyla Ross, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber. But these five girls are now America’s heroines, after winning the first all-around team gold for the USA in gymnastics since 1996. Gabby Douglas became the first African-American woman to win gymnastics gold. McKayla Maroney’s Amanar vault was so technically perfect, so excellently done, that people want to rename it the Maroney. And there were tears in Aly Raisman’s eyes as she finished her floor exercise, knowing she had officially sealed the all-around team gold for the USA. How can you not love that?
9) I have been watching soccer for at least 10 years. And two of the three most heart-stopping games have been constructed by the US women’s national team. The most recent was the semi-final against Canada. Back and forth goals, face-stompings, controversial referee decisions, extra time, and finally, a last-gasp header from Alex Morgan to secure a 4-3 win and a place in the championship game. Despite a heroic performance from Canadian superstar Christine Sinclair who scored three beautiful goals, the USA women advanced to the gold medal game where they would take home the prize.
10) Coming in to London, the USA had never won a medal in judo. That changed with Kayla Harrison surprising the judo world to win gold. But her story goes much deeper than that. While most Olympians were training, Harrison was in court, testifying against her childhood coach on charges on sexual molestation. Harrison survived something that would send most people crumbling. Moving on with her life was a victory for Harrison. Making it to the Olympics shows her strength and determination. Winning gold? That just makes it all taste sweeter.
11) This Olympics was something of a coming-out party for female athletes around the world but especially for the US. In addition to the gymnasts, swimmers and soccer players, the US women’s track and field team took over their events. Led by Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross and the wonderfully named but differently pronouncing Carmelita Jeter, the US women’s took home medals in track, long jump and pole vault, and set an astounding world record in the 4 x 100 relay.
12) Great Britain is known for three things: horrible teeth, a historic empire in decline, and sports teams failing under the brightest spotlight. This extends to tennis, where no British man has won Wimbledon since 1936. The current hero is Andy Murray, who lost to Roger Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon final. Yet, in this Olympics, at the very same tournament, with the royal family watching, Murray fought his way to the end and defeated Federer, rousing a stadium full of fans to roar out God Save the Queen. Murray hugged his family and girlfriend in the stands, before turning back to the court. However, he turned around once more, to hug a young boy who reached out from the stands. I don’t know if Murray knew this boy or whether it was a stranger, but that boy held on to Murray tightly, face buried in the crook of the tennis hero’s neck.
13) What can be said about Usain Bolt that hasn’t already? Yes he’s cocky but how could the fastest man who has ever lived not be cocky? He defended his golds from Beijing, led a dominant Jamaican squad and reveled in the adoration from the fans. But during a post-race interview, he stopped the reporter and respectfully bowed his head as the United States national anthem played for another runner. Beyond his speed, and power, and skill, that is what I will take away from this Olympics about Usain Bolt.
It is really easy to be cynical about the Olympics. It seems so naive to think that a mere sporting event can build bridges between nations that war, genocide, oppression and violence have separated. Yet, somehow it happens. Women in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei can dream a little bit bigger now. Sports has a way of bringing people together, even if it only lasts from the opening whistle to the final buzzer. Hate is bred of ignorance and ignorance is washed away when you are across the mat from your opponent, seeing the tears in his eyes, or the joy on her face. That’s what sports is, and that’s what sports do.