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One man's memories of the London 2012 Olympics

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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(AP)

(AP)

LONDON – For the third time, the capital of Great Britain hosted the Olympics. In 1908, the modern Games were just starting out. In 1948, they were dubbed the "Austerity Games" since much of the world was recovering from a war.

This, then, was the chance for the city to show itself in full – a combination of a thriving metropolis that was deeply rooted in history. It's the kind of setting where you could tour a church built in 960, walk over to beach volleyball and then dine on authentic Indian food.

It was also about the gathering of the world's best athletes and best story lines, everything from NBA multimillionaires to marathon refugees who didn't even have a country to represent.

It was the London Olympics, and here is some of what stood out (American-biased version).

Michael Phelps

He arrived with 16 medals, including 14 golds, already in his possession. So Phelps said his sundae was complete; he was just here to see how many toppings he could pile on.

It was an interesting statement, one designed to take the pressure off winning gold in all of his seven events. It also made it sound like he wasn't fully committed, and so when he finished fourth in his first event, the 400-meter individual medley, that was part of the narrative out of the Aquatics Centre.

[ Photos: Michael Phelps with all his Olympic medals ]

It was ridiculous, of course. "Crappy race," Phelps called it and it was more aberration than trend. If anything, he should've skipped the grueling 400 IM. That he went for it said he was taking these Games very seriously.

Four golds and two silvers later, and Phelps' sundae was buried in toppings. He left London as the most decorated champion ever and forever in the argument as greatest Olympian of all time. His presence lifted the interest in all swimmers and made Ryan Lochte, among others, into bigger stars just for beating him.

His impact on swimming will continue for years to come. No one will ever question his competitiveness, either.

The Fierce Five

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(Getty)

(Getty)

The U.S. women's gymnastics team churned on, this time delivering team gold for the first time since Atlanta, an all-around champion in Gabby Douglas for the third consecutive Olympics (Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin), and what turned out to be an actual close-knit group of friends.

"This is a real team," said director Martha Karolyi, declaring it America's best ever.

Douglas, with her big smile, may be the breakout star, but the rest of the group – McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross – are right there with her. If anything, it showed the machine that Martha and her husband, Bela Karolyi, built in this country. They took one golden moment produced by Mary Lou Retton against boycott-reduced competition at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and now have a super power on their hands.

[ Video: Fierce Five gymnasts' golden moment ]

Bela Karolyi, for one, looked at the dominance of Douglas, the first African American to win the all around, and hoped it was a springboard to bringing a more diverse group of athletes into gymnastics. He believed Dominique Dawes in 1996 led to Gabby Douglas in 2012. So what's coming down the road?

"I've always wanted to get the African Americans into this sport -- so much potential," he said.

The five medalists say they'll be back for Rio in 2016, but history says age isn't kind to gymnasts. For the USA, it shouldn't matter. There is another group undoubtedly coming. Perhaps even better, deeper and more diverse than before.

Usain Bolt

He said he came to become a legend and, of that, there can be no doubt.

The Jamaican sprinter defended his 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100-meter gold medals, the last in world-record time. No one has ever done such a thing.

Bolt did it against incredible competition, the fastest group of humans ever assembled. In the 100 meters, the silver and bronze medalists ran personal bests and never stood a chance. In the relay, the silver medal-winning Americans ran a national best and tied the previous world record and still finished five meters behind Bolt, who ran the anchor leg for Jamaica.

[ Video: Usain Bolt blasts into history ]

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(Reuters)

There was nothing else like him at these Games. Sprinting is our most basic and primal sense of competition. You just line up and run, and the world has never seen anyone like him – 6-foot-5, muscular, and with a stride that no one can match. He brought a showman's flair to the track and a willingness to hit back at anyone suggesting performance-enhancing drugs. 

He was the biggest star of these Olympics, causing track tickets to soar in price on the secondary market and prompting stars from every other pursuit to come out and see him.

He was the Lightning Bolt, and he was the Legend of London.

Dwight Howard

He wasn't an Olympian, but his mid-Games trade from Orlando to Los Angeles overwhelmed the men's basketball tournament as the NBA became the talk of the Games. It shouldn't surprise. Commissioner David Stern wanted to turn the Olympics into a platform for his league to sell itself to global audiences and, judging by the frenzy wherever Team USA went, it has worked.

Perhaps too well.

This could be the end of the 20-year-old Dream Team concept. Stern and a number of NBA owners want to stop the IOC from profiting handsomely off their employees. There are proposals and plenty of momentum to turn the Olympics into a 23-and-under tournament, much like men's soccer. Then the NBA could team up with FIBA to stage a "World Cup of Basketball" featuring all the great players.

That money would find its way to the NBA.

It's smart in a strict dollars-and-cents way. The IOC may be without its golden goose in 2016.

The Royals

The queen was in a video for the Opening Ceremony. Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess Kate and the guy she married and his brother kept showing up at all sorts of events to root the Brits on with great glee – all with the cameras on them, of course.

It was clear the royals were using these Olympics to up their popularity by selling themselves as just regular people. They even OK'ed all the events that took place near their palaces and residences.

Maybe it worked. Who knows? It's a puzzling group. Kate Middleton would be photographed wearing three and four different outfits in a single day. It seems like they exist to sell copies of the Sun and the Daily Mirror.

So considering the state of the newspaper industry, maybe the royals could move to the United States.

The Horse Guards Parade

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Reuters

Reuters

Part of the legacy of the London Games will be its ability to incorporate so many incredible historic sights and legendary venues. They played tennis at Wimbledon. They played soccer at Old Trafford. Archery was at a 200-year-old cricket grounds. The park that held equestrian events was laid out in 1427. The marathon began at Buckingham Palace.

It was incredible, with the perfect mix of modern sport and the rich history of London.

Perhaps nothing combined it better than the beach volleyball venue, which was tucked in next to the Horse Guards Parade, a glorious royal building just steps from No. 10 Downing Street, where the prime minister works. The visuals each night were glorious, this near castle lit up as a rather modern sport was played in front of it. The cheers of the crowd often roared out and washed over the changing of the guard ceremony on the street above.

And when Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won gold for the third consecutive time, the noise on these ancient grounds made it the most memorable of all their victories.

The Brits

At the 2004 Athens Games, Great Britain combined for just nine gold medals and 30 overall. This was not a sporting powerhouse.

When the nation was granted these Olympics, the government invested in infrastructure and training, and suddenly there were times it felt like no other nation stood a chance. The United States and China still finished first and second in the medal standings but "Team GB," as it was hailed, was a respectable fourth in total medals (65) and third in golds (29).

Moreover, a nation that sometimes struggles for a bit of national pride – or even revels in its grumpiness – was overcome by the performance and personality of stars such as Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Heather Stanning, and so many more.

London itself is one the most, if not the most, diverse cities in the world, a symbol of the incredible immigration into Great Britain. The athletes of the team represented that and, importantly, were hailed with equal joy and pride. The scene of a roaring, wild Olympic Stadium cheering on Somali-Brit Mo Farah in his gold-medal 5,000-meter run was one of the moments of the Games.

There's a lot more here than just symbols of the past and some duchess.

Katie Taylor

The 26-year-old didn't just electrify the Irish, giving them their only gold medal and offering a moment of relief to a nation in deep recession. She also assured that the IOC's decision to sanction women's boxing was a booming success.

 [ Related: Boxer Katie Taylor lifts the hopes of Ireland ]

Taylor brought an otherworldly charisma with her, and thousands of rowdy Irish fans to boot. The women's boxing sessions were sold out at the 10,000-seat ExCeL Center, and the noise, passion, and enthusiasm spilled over into everyone's bout. It made it the place to be for a sport that plenty of elitists still felt uneasy about.

Mind the Gap

London has an extensive underground subway system, land rails that run all over the region and the country and even a bullet train that took people from Central London to Olympic Park in six minutes flat (opposed to a 45-minute drive). The rail infrastructure made these a simple Olympics to get around, alleviating the need for buses and taxis.

There was just one puzzling part. At every station, someone reminded the passengers to not fall in between the small sliver of space between the train and the platform. "Mind the gap," the voice reminded. Was this really a problem?

The women's Games

For the first time ever, each nation had at least one female participant, although for certain countries such as Saudi Arabia, this wasn't celebrated and was merely done so the IOC – and potentially FIFA – wouldn't ban them from male competition.

Still, the gesture was at least something and increasingly it didn't matter what the gender was for fans to rally behind the performance. Men's and women's sports were mostly met with equal anticipation, ticket prices, crowds, and television ratings.

And for the United States, it was the women, particularly our dominant track team – Allyson Felix had three golds and a world record – that drove the country to the top of the medal standings. If the American women were their own country, they would have finished third in the medal standings.

Guor Marial and Oscar Pistorius

The Olympic spirit is an overused term, but it exists. It exists in the moments when all of the world's people come together to salute an athlete regardless of his or her nationality. Mostly, it's when someone shows the power of the human spirit far from any chance at the medal stand.

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee 400-meter runner from South Africa dubbed the "Blade Runner," was one of them here. A Paralympic champion, he qualified for the Olympics and showed up to inspire the world, although he kept reminding that wasn't why he came.

"I just wanted to do my best," he said. "I'm a competitor."

Guor Marial was another. As a child born in war-torn Sudan, he saw 28 of his family members killed, including eight of his 10 siblings. He was beaten, enslaved and only escaped by running, literally, to his freedom.

Now immigrated to America but not yet a citizen, he competed here in the marathon, only not for Sudan. He refused that. A new nation, South Sudan, has been formed, but it had no Olympic committee. So Marial was allowed to come under the IOC flag – to compete as a citizen of the world and force the rest of us to remember the mountains some have to overcome just to have a chance.

"The Olympics," Marial said, "reminds you of a world which has nothing to do with killing each other. It is about a world of living peacefully."



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