After two weeks of competition, hundreds of medals and an endless reel of heart-grabbing moments, the London Olympics are history and a fresh crop of champions departed the stern city they collectively charmed.
All the pre-Games grumbling over terrorism and price tags gave way to glory and goodwill as athletes pushed their bodies to extraordinary limits, enchanting audiences around the world with as much personality as prowess.
While the full athletic and economic impact of the so-called legacy Games remain to be seen, the London Olympics are already being hailed as enough of a victory to inspire calls for London’s mayor Boris Johnson to run for prime minister. No apocalyptic gridlock. No mishaps at the Opening Ceremony. No real scandal.
Sure there were some glitches—bizarre cheating allegations, some doping charges, a few judging protests—but they were heavily outweighed by displays of goodwill, terrifically silly memes and those stirring moments of Shakespearean caliber that, for a two-week period, seemed to make day-to-day life happily recede.
Who can forget the 2012 Games' most memorable moments?
Much of the symbolism of artistic director Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony was lost on American audiences, but there's no denying that it was a wildly ambitious, eye-popping spectacle. The $42 million show spanned more than a century of British history. Farm animals, chimneys and creepy children's book characters made appearances alongside Paul McCartney and Mr. Bean. A stunt double playing Queen Elizabeth II descended into Olympic Stadium from a helicopter as the real monarch stood solemnly in her VIP seat. Her unsmiling expression was one of many images to make the internet and Photoshop rounds.
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The badminton competition got off to a strange start after eight players were booted for trying to lose. The doubles players from China, South Korea and Indonesia apparently tried to blow their matches so they could get an easier match-up in the knockout round.
Boris Johnson dangled helplessly from a zipline that was supposed to launch the spirited London mayor into Victoria Park after Great Britain notched its first gold medal. The image of Johnson in a blue helmet and suit holding two drooping Union Jacks became instant internet fodder and spawned a whole catalogue of comically photoshopped pictures.
As usual, the Olympics provided ample inspiration for social media memes and humor blogs. Perhaps the 3,500 hours of live-streamed coverage made it easier for viewers, already sitting at their computers, to instantly post their comedic interpretations.
A quick highlight reel: As mentioned, there was "Dangling Boris." Gymnast McKayla Maroney's sour expression on the medal podium spawned the "McKayla is Not Impressed" Tumblr, in which the teenager appears as a disapproving witness to everything from a Justin Bieber concert to a promo for Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."
The U.S. swim team made a lip-synced music video to "Call Me Maybe" that had been played more than 6 million times by day 15 of the games. Sprinter Usain Bolt's "Bolting" celebratory move became the latest pose to imitate and share with the world on Facebook and Twitter.
And Ryan Lochte's confession to in-pool peeing earned him a spot in two Funny or Die videos, in which he expounded on his habit.
Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius of South Africa became the first amputee ever to compete in the Olympics. He finished last in the 400m semifinal heat and again in the final 4x400 relay, but the cheerful athlete won a standing ovation and fulfilled his goal to compete in the Games alongside able-bodied competitors.
Thirty-six female boxers made history by competing in an Olympic sport that was boys-only until this year. Claressa Shields, a 17-year-old American who grew up in Flint, Mich., a city marred by poverty and crime, won the middleweight gold medal. Ireland's champion boxer Katie Taylor won gold in the lightweight division, and in fairy-tale form, the host country got a piece of the glory as Nicola Adams won the flyweight title and "God Save the Queen" was piped through the Excel Center.
Hundreds of spectators at London’s Olympic Stadium rose to their feet and applauded Sarah Attar, a 19-year-old who competed in the 800 meters under the flag of Saudi Arabia. She and one other pioneering woman, judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, were the first women ever permitted to represent the Gulf nation in an international sporting event. Attar came in last place, but told The Associated Press that she participated to inspire, not to win. Their presence at the Games came down to an 11th-hour compromise between Olympic officials and Saudi leaders over details including how much skin the athletes would be permitted to cover. Women from Qatar and Brunei competed for the first time as well.
More than 60 Olympic records and 30 world records were broken at the London Games, mostly in weightlifting and swimming. Some of the flashiest records included Usain Bolt's 9.63 second 100m sprint that broke his own Olympic record, but fell short of breaking his world record of 9.58.
The U.S. women's 4x100 relay team ran the race in 40.82 seconds, smashing the old world record of 41.37.
First-timer Missy Franklin set an Olympic and world record in the 200m backstroke with her time of 2 minutes 4.06 seconds, while her teammate Allison Schmitt set an Olympic record in the 200m freestyle (1:53.61).
And Michael Phelps headed off into retirement after setting one of the most impressive records of the Games. By adding six medals to his astounding 16-piece collection, Phelps became the most-decorated Olympian of all time.
If the ease with which Jamaica's Usain Bolt set records and effortlessly clobbered competitors was not enough to make him the star of the 2012 Games, his outsized personality would probably have been. Bolt was a walking spectacle through the Games. After winning gold in the 200m he shushed the crowd, dropped to the track and started doing push-ups. He offered fist-bumps to track attendants, he danced at the starting blocks and he identified himself as "the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen" on a Twitter page that's a window into his personality.
Ryan Lochte arrived in London a self-assured, sometimes dopey sex symbol—an image his appearance at the Games only amplified. He winked and blew kisses, he thought out loud about a future that might include designing Speedos and moving to an L.A. bachelor pad. He tried to defend his mom who characterized his relationships with women as "one-night stands." It was all fuel to the fire. Blogs called him fratty and conceited. He wore a grill with his gold medal. Fellow Olympians scrambled for pictures with him and female divers inserted a request in a parody video for Ryan Lochte to call them—maybe.
Michael Phelps was nearly overshadowed by his bombastic teammate. Locthe had beaten Phelps in a few key events and predictions abounded that Phelps' glory days were over. But then he swam into history by grabbing golds in the 100m fly, 200m individual medley, men's 4x200m IM and 4x200m freestyle relay and became the most-decorated Olympic athlete ever.
Gabby Douglas became America's latest sweetheart after she led the U.S. women's gymnastics team to a gold, and then scored another gold in the individual all-around. Her flawless, jaw-dropping routines made her the "most-clicked" athlete on NBC's Olympic site and won her the cereal box treatment. But her ascent was quickly reversed after she placed last on bars, fell off the beam and became the subject of a mean-spirited debate about her hair. Still, the 16-year-old appears to have gracefully weathered the storm.
Gymnast McKayla Maroney first became a superstar when she dazzled spectators with an opening vault that sent her body rocketing through the air and into a landing that was so sudden and still that it appeared to have surprised even Maroney. She scored a 16.233 on the vault, to give the U.S. women's gymnastics team a lead it would not relinquish. At the next competition, however, Maroney landed a vault on her backside, which was still enough to earn her a silver on the apparatus, her disappointment not-withstanding.
Kate Middleton had even the celebrities of the Olympics feeling star struck. The women's gymnastics team told the "Today" show how excited they were to meet the Duchess and find out that she was a fan of their leotards.
Missy Franklin's magnetic smile lit up the Aquatic Center again and again as she racked up her first four Olympic medals, inspiring a massive interest in the 17-year-old's post high school plans. Would it be college or professional swimming? She's leaning toward college, she told The AP, but she's still figuring it out.
Johnson was a famously good sport about the whole zip line fiasco. He cracked jokes and goofily waved the flags he was holding until he was rescued several minutes after his descent slowed to a mid-air stop. His lighthearted response to the awkward situation, along with his vehement defense of his city after Mitt Romney questioned its preparedness gave a big boost to his popularity and increased speculation that he might be bound for 10 Downing—speculation that Johnson has swatted away.
Mitt Romney's trip to the London Olympics turned into a fumble on his first international trip of his candidacy. The presidential nominee called London's security strikes "disconcerting" and wondered aloud if the city was ready to host such a large-scale event. These comments sparked a backlash from the British press, Mayor Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron who said "It's easier if you hold an Olympic games in the middle of nowhere"—a reference to the Salt Lake City Games Romney oversaw.
And a day after Ralph Lauren unveiled the uniforms team USA would wear into Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremony, someone decided to look at the tags and discovered, to the horror of American politicians, that they were made in China. The bipartisan firestorm that erupted with the news prompted Lauren to agree to have them manufactured in the USA next time around.
The U.S. women's soccer team won a thrilling semi-final over Canada that included a flurry of five goals in 26 minutes, with the Americans never taking the lead until the game's final minute. Two days later, the U.S. team would avenge its 2011 World Cup loss by beating Japan 2-1 to take the gold.
No one at the 2012 Games put on a greater display of pure toughness than Manteo Mitchell of the American 4x400-meter relay team, who ran the second of of his leg with a broken leg to help the U.S. advance to the finals.
South Korean Im Dong Hyun, the legally blind archer who on the first day of competition broke his own world record with a 72-arrow score of 699.
Soaring expectations for some athletes amplified the heartbreak and disappointment of their failures. That was no more apparent than in the men's and women's gymnastics competitions.
Everyone expected Jordyn Weiber to win the all-around gold in Gymnastics. But the 17-year-old didn't even qualify and had to watch her teammates compete from the sidelines. The gold medal went to her lesser-known teammate Gabby Douglas, whose stellar performance made her an overnight celebrity. Seeing heartbreak later were Douglas and Maroney, both falling in individual rounds.
On the men's side, John Orozco was hailed as the rising star who could challenge the Chinese and Japanese who dominate men's gymnastics. The Bronx native did just that during a preliminary round but then stumbled and stumbled yet again on the pommel horse, landing in a disappointing eighth place in the individual all-around.
Lolo Jones was hoping for a comeback. She was on pace to win the 100m hurdles in Beijing, but clipped the final hurdle and landed in seventh. The London Games were supposed to be her chance at redemption. Instead, she became the subject of major media scrutiny for such things as posing nude in ESPN the Magazine. Even worse, she ended the Games with a fourth-place finish—just shy of the bronze.
Morgan Uceny, a runner from California had fallen down in the 1,500m at the world championships last year. She picked herself up, finished 10th, and fought her way onto the Olympic track and into a perfect position to make a go for a medal. But then it happened again. She was tripped from behind on the last lap of the race and fell to the track, pounding her palms onto the ground in frustration. This time, she did not finish the race.
The strength these athletes showed in subsequent media appearances and interviews, in which they were forced to recount the details of some of the most devastating moments of their careers, were stunning examples of Olympic grace. Their failures, as much as their previous successes, were lessons in poise and in handling the tragedies that life invariably has in store.