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Olympics: A smashing time was had by all

Published August 12, 2012 9:46 am

Women stand out, Brits show off, and the U.S. wins medal haul.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

London • So that all worked out pretty well, didn't it?

The London Olympics draw to a close on Sunday, having put on a spectacular show over 16 days — however long it took for Americans to see it on NBC — that far surpassed some of the gloom-and-doom expectations that greeted their opening, starting pretty much from the moment Queen Elizabeth jumped out of a helicopter.

The home team enjoyed a tremendous medal haul that inspired its notoriously dour citizenry to roaring cheers, the United States beat China in the medal chase, and women took center stage in a way they never have before — with swimmer Missy Franklin, gymnast Gabby Douglas and heptathlete Jessica Ennis emerging as fresh-faced international stars.

Oh, and another six medals for swimmer Michael Phelps made him the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 18 gold medals, two silver and two bronze.

"It really could not have been a more positive experience for us, in every way," said Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Heck, even the weather wasn't all that bad.

An event that began with a cheeky Opening Ceremony that included the queen appearing to parachute from a helicopter in place of famous secret agent James Bond is ending as Olympics always do — with enduring images of triumph, anguish and at least a little bit of turmoil.

There was Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee from South Africa who made history by running against able-bodied athletes on his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs, and was such an inspiration that eventual 400-meter champion Kirani James of Grenada asked to swap name tags after a semifinal race.

Cyclist Bradley Wiggins helped ignite the home-soil passion for "Team GB" by winning the men's road race just six days after winning the Tour de France, while Jamaica's Usain Bolt made the world stop and take notice of a self-proclaimed "living legend," as he sprinted spectacularly to victory in the 100 and 200 meters — plus the 4x100 relay, where he helped set a world record.

"It's amazing when one person can literally bring the entire world to look at one stage for 10 seconds," judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison said.

Harrison was part of a landmark Olympics for women in London, who outnumbered men on the U.S. team for the first time.

They won way more medals, too, while women for the first time competed for each of the 204 nations that sent athletes to the Games — including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, three longtime holdouts in the Muslim world.

But even that achievement was tinged with painful reminders of progress yet to be made.

The first woman to run track for Saudi Arabia, for example, was an average college runner from California who has dual citizenship through her father and did not speak with international reporters after finishing last in a heat of the 800 meters wearing long sleeves, tights and a white headscarf. She had to have a male escort at all times, marched with another woman behind the Saudi men in the Opening Ceremony and did not stay in the athletes village so she would not associate with unfamiliar men.

In small steps, progress.

Elsewhere, debates erupted about women's looks and behavior, in a way many doubt would have happened with men.

Critics in the media — social and otherwise — took issue with Douglas' hair. Hurdler Lolo Jones was reduced to tears by criticism of her sexy image and fourth-place finish. And gold-medal-winning tennis star Serena Williams was questioned for performing a celebratory dance long associated with the Crips street gang.

"Our society puts a lot into women and sometimes how they look or what they wear and how they dress," Harrison said. "But I think that being a strong female competitor is the best thing that we can do in order to sort of fight that. It doesn't matter how we look when we win the gold medal, we just won the gold medal."

Ah, yes.

The medals.

The Americans will top the medal chart in every measurable way, after some predicted they would be overtaken by China, which lost the overall medal count four years ago at the Beijing Games but won 15 more golds. The Americans have 44 golds and 102 medals overall here, compared with 38 gold and 87 overall for China, with a handful of medals still coming Sunday before the Closing Ceremony.

Great Britain, meanwhile, has won 62 medals, including 28 golds — the most since 1908, the first time London played host to the Olympics. None was more cherished than the one claimed by Ennis, by far the face of the Games here.

"They have had a spectacular Olympics," said Larry Probst, the chairman of the USOC.

Of course, there are always different views of the Olympics, depending on who's looking.

Australia has been none too pleased with its disastrous performance in the pool — no individual golds for the first time since 1976 — and Kenya is asking tough questions after a lackluster showing on the track that was salvaged only by David Rudisha's spectacular world record in the 800.

The track cycling team from France grumbled that the Brits must have used "magic wheels" to beat them for seven of the 10 gold medals available.

And don't even get the Chinese started about the badminton scandal that led to the expulsion of four of their athletes, along with four others from Indonesia and South Korea, for trying to lose matches to secure a more favorable draw later (even though China still swept all five gold medals).

For all its successes, the USOC wasn't totally satisfied, either, planning a serious look at USA Boxing, whose men lost nine of their 10 bouts and failed to win a medal for the first time.

"We want to do better," Blackmun said.

Still, the Americans were especially pleased to win more medals than they expected in swimming (31), track (29, most since 1992) and tennis (4), with gymnastics coming up just short of expectations overall but winning the important women's all-around with the 16-year-old Douglas.

The 17-year-old Franklin won five medals in the pool, four of them gold, while the women's soccer team also won gold after a dramatic last-second semifinal victory over Canada. Women's water polo and basketball won, too, as did cyclist Kristin Armstrong, boxer Claressa Shields and beach volleyball stars Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor — for the third straight and final time.

Just as importantly, some of the problems that skeptics feared at the start never materialized.

Security was never breached, despite the scandal involving a private firm's failure to deliver the required number of guards, although there was that rogue cast member who managed to walk with athletes from India during the Opening Ceremony.

Transportation problems never escalated beyond a few minor bus and train delays, while volunteers and soldiers were widely praised for their friendliness, and officials at every turn have complimented the organizers.

A great time, it seems, has been had by all.

Or at least, most.

"Everyone here has had an absolutely amazing time," Franklin said. "Everything went perfect. They did such a great job, even with the small things. … It's been a true honor to be here."

Next up for the Summer Olympics?

Rio de Janeiro in 2016. And "we are not obligated," said Marco Balich, the head of the organizing committee's handover ceremony, "to throw our president out of a helicopter."

mcl@sltrib.com

Twitter: @MCLTribune