I was rushing to catch a train to Olympic Park for the closing ceremony and checked the electronic board for when the next one was coming. Instead, the sign announced that Anthony Joshua had won another gold medal for Team GB in superheavyweight boxing. That brought the British gold-medal haul at the London Games to 29, compared with just a single Olympic title in 1996. A group of Brits in a similar state of haste crowded around the board. Surely they shared my frustration at not knowing when the trains were to depart? But they burst out cheering. A girl with a nose ring took a photo of the sign with her iPhone. “Wonderful, innit?” another exclaimed. I felt like the Grinch who stole the Olympics.
Patriotism, it must be admitted, is easier to forgive in countries with a smaller global footprint. The chant of “USA, USA” might prompt fears of hegemony in some places, but who didn’t love it when the Fijians shook their grass skirts at a weight-lifting competition or judo fans from Nauru (the tiniest nation at the Olympics) broke out into a whoop-whoop-whoop-hoo-hoo-hooooiiii (which I can only imagine must be a traditional South Pacific cheer)?
So what to make of Great Britain, the empire on which the sun once never set but which has now been demoted to the world’s seventh largest economy? Throughout the London Games, the British deployed their best tactical weapon: a self-effacing sense of humor. It was as if the nation were emphasizing its insignificance, not so much a sceptered isle, in Shakespeare’s words, as much as a wee scattering of rocks in the North Atlantic. The world was charmed. How threatening are the Beatles, Mary Poppins and Mr. Bean?
But when home-team medals came rushing in — and not just in what the British term the sit-down sports of rowing, cycling and equestrian — the mood turned so earnestly enthusiastic that even an American would feel right at home. The Union Jack, which rarely flies on private flagpoles, fluttered from windows and balconies. Where was the British arched eyebrow, the irony held so dear? What would the country do with all that winning?
Cue the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. The stage was set with an understated London panorama wrapped in newsprint, as if the Olympics were an order of fish and chips to be discarded the next day. Then an actor dressed as Winston Churchill burst out of Big Ben. The stage turned into a canvas for Damien Hirst, which was described in the program notes as “a centrifugal explosion of red, white and blue — an expression of the dynamic, anarchic energy of British Pop art.” By the time “God Save the Queen” rang out, the stage erupted in candy-colored hues, and Union Jacks flew from every cute little British vehicle.
(PHOTOS: The Olympic Games in Motion)
During the parade of the athletes, some participants from France (France!) waved tiny British flags. After taking their victory lap, the athletes were cordoned off between giant stripes of the Union Jack. If the host had been China or the U.S., the jingoism might have felt like the sinister projection of a superpower. But this was little Britain’s Games. We were left with a musical medley of remarkable if mystifying proportions: the Pet Shop Boys in an orange rickshaw; the Spice Girls in an extremely hyped reunion; Pink Floyd providing the backdrop to a pair of tightrope walkers; and “Imagine” playing as volunteers marched in twirling white puzzle pieces that became a giant profile of John Lennon. (The audience was also treated to the up-tempo beat of the Ugandan national anthem, as Stephen Kiprotich collected his men’s marathon gold medal, per Olympic tradition for the closing ceremony.)
At some point, the Union Jack appeared again, this time transmogrified into eight catwalks on which Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and other supermodels strutted designs by British designers like Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood. Finally, a transparent, glowing octopus appeared, its eight tentacles spread into the spokes of the national flag.
Throughout the evening, the British flag had served as athlete’s holding pen, catwalk and cephalopod. The dignity of the evening was saved by none other than George Michael at his crotch-thrusting, leather-panted best. As the word freedom flashed across the audience, he belted out his hit “Freedom ’90.”
In the end, what London gave to the Olympic movement was a delightfully idiosyncratic but determinedly independent Games, in which wildflowers grew with abandon in the Olympic Park, and the volunteers, in their mismatched fuschia-and-lavender uniforms, were credited lavishly in both the opening and closing ceremonies. As the London Olympics drew to a close, Sebastian Coe, the Games’ organizer, went out of his way to thank those who built the stadiums and stood guard to keep the venues safe. “Thank you to the tens of thousands of volunteers,” he said, “who gave their time, their boundless enthusiasm and their goodwill and who have the right to say ‘I made London 2012.’”
One of the final numbers from the Brits was Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” performed by Jessie J. Images of Queen’s former lead singer Freddie Mercury, a Parsi born in Zanzibar who was nonetheless a subject of Britain, were projected on the giant screens. Then, after a bit of Olympic pageantry — the Olympic flag was lowered and the Games’ anthem played — the Brazilians emerged for a brief preview of Rio 2016. Samba queens shimmied to Afro-Brazilian beats, as lithe practitioners of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, tumbled across the stage. The atmosphere was pure Carnaval, transplanted to London. Britain’s got its music, but, baby, so does Brazil.
Back at the 2008 Beijing closing ceremony, when the British followed the awesome projection of national power that was China’s Olympic display, the change from patriotic grandeur to quirky Britannia felt jarring. But this time, the transition from London to Rio was smoother. In the final choreographed sequence, as The Who jammed, faces of Britons, of every race and creed, flashed on the screens. Britain’s gold-medal athletes, as much as anything, validated the multicultural legacy of the Empire. “Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation,” Roger Daltrey crooned. Pixelated Union Jacks flashed over the audience, like a patriotic Tetris game. Then the air filled with red, white and blue confetti. Nothing ironic about that.