London 2012’s top-10 sporting moments

It is with good reason that Olympiads have a history reaching back thousands of years: the spectacle of watching the world’s greatest athletic talents go head-to-head is an awe-inspiring and captivating event, for spectators ancient and modern.

Story highlights

London 2012 Olympics come to a close after 16 days of sporting highlights

Usain Bolt wins three medals to equal his achievements of Beijing 2008

Team GB surpasses its targets by winning 65 medals, finishing third overall

Michael Phelps signs off as the most decorated Olympian, having won 22 medals

Olympic Park, London CNN  — 

It is with good reason that Olympiads have a history reaching back thousands of years: the spectacle of watching the world’s greatest athletic talents go head-to-head is an awe-inspiring and captivating event, for spectators ancient and modern.

The Olympic Games have come to represent many things since Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s reinvention of the age-old gathering in 1896. Peace and harmony between countries, the redefinition of a host nation in the eyes of the world, the power of the individual to overcome challenge, the creation of a sport industry worth billions of dollars and the manners, morals and meaning that encompass the ‘Spirit’ of the event.

But such factors are centrifugal in nature compared to the core that gives the Games its energy: just as the fusion of hydrogen turning to helium gives solar power to the universe, it is the endeavor and execution of athletes that fuels the Olympics.

London 2012 has been no exception, even providing what some may argue was a vintage crop of sporting memories to add to the history books. Below, in no particular order, is this author’s take on the 10 that matter. Add your comments below if you feel there are moments that should have been included:

Lightning Bolt strikes thrice

It is difficult to quantify how much 25-year-old Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt means to athletics at this point in time. Some estimate that his deal with sports brand Puma alone is worth $10 million a year and that his earnings equate to 80% of all the money in global track and field.

Bolt leads Jamaica to world record

Usain Bolt

While these figures can’t be accurately quantified, it’s fair to say they might be due to rise after his performances in London. Given his fame, Bolt had more pressure and scrutiny on his 6 foot 5 inch frame than any other athlete in the world. Not only did he manage to keep such distractions from affecting his track execution, he captured the hearts of Olympic Stadium spectators with his theatrics, camaraderie and heart-on-sleeve sense of fun and enthusiasm for his time in the limelight.

He set a new Olympic record of 9.63 seconds in the 100 meters and then won the 200m to become the first man to achieve a double sprint double. And then, on the last night of track competition, he anchored the Jamaican 4x100m team that set a new world record of 36.84 en route to gold – matching his achievement at Beijing 2008.

When he asked 80,000 people in the arena to start a “Mexican wave” and they obliged with gusto, it seemed like there was no limits to his talent.

The repetition of the triple-haul of golds he achieved in Beijing sealed Bolt’s legendary status on London, he now takes his place next to the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Pele in the pantheon of sport’s all-time greats.

Photos: The sprint kings and queens

Hoy and GB’s cycling dominance

A key ingredient for any Games is for host nation athletes to capture the imagination of the home crowd by winning golds – it helps to give the venues an added atmosphere of expectation and elation as well as creating the cliched “feel good factor” among the domestic population.

Hoy becomes Britain’s greatest Olympian

Chris Hoy

Team GB officials set themselves what many felt was an ambitious target of winning 48 medals and finishing fourth in the overall standings. The targets were smashed. And a key reason for the wave of winners that saw Team GB finish third overall with 65 medals was the dominance of its cyclists in the velodrome.

Led by 36-year-old Chris Hoy, the British team captured gold in seven out of the 10 track cycling events. Athletes such as Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton, Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes combined to win 80% of the races Team GB entered, setting three world records on the way.

The golds in the men’s individual sprint, men’s team sprint, men’s keirin, women’s keirin, men’s team pursuit, women’s team pursuit and women’s omnium was a truly awesome achievement that helped make the velodrome one of the most vociferous venues at the Games.

Hoy – the flag bearer for his nation in the Opening Ceremony – picked up two gold medals in London, making him Britain’s most successful Olympian in history with six overall. Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said Hoy’s tears during his acceptance speech was his “defining moment of the Games.”

Hoy rules out Rio return

Outside of the track, mention must be made too of Bradley Wiggins, who clinched gold in the men’s individual time trial only 12 days after becoming the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
Phelps the Great

If Bolt was the face who epitomized glory on the track, it was Michael Phelps who was the poster boy of the pool. Dubbed by Allison Schmitt, anchor of the U.S. women’s gold medal-winning medley relay team, as the “most famous man in the world,” the 27-year-old from Baltimore sealed his place as the greatest swimmer in history and the most successful Olympian of all time by winning his 18th career gold in London; his 22nd Games medal.

Olympic legend Phelps: ‘I’m done with swimming’

Michael Phelps

Put simply, Phelps has won more medals as an individual than many nations in over 100 years of competition. These staggering accolades were attained with four golds (men’s 4x100m medley, men’s 100m butterfly, men’s 200m individual medley and men’s 4x200m freestyle relay) and two silvers (men’s 200m butterfly and men’s 4x100m freestyle relay) in the London Aquatic Centre.

Phelps’ consistency since making his Olympics debut in 2004 is unparalleled and all the more notable when dominant Beijing performers such as Rebecca Adlington struggled so notably to replicate her form of four years previous.

However, it was the manner in which the American conducted himself that resonated so widely, and bizarrely it was the victory of South Africa’s Chad Le Clos over Phelps in the men’s 200m butterfly that added so much to his renown. Phelps has long maintained that his career ambition was not to win golds but to “inspire” others, and by so heartily congratulating Le Clos – a 20-year-old inspired to swim by the performances of his hero in Beijing – he demonstrated magnanimity and the realization of his dream.

Zonderland raises the bar

Epke Zonderland may have been unknown to all but gymnastic aficionados prior to the Games, but his gravity-defying feats on the horizontal high bar have led many pundits to hail his performance as the “Comaneci” moment of London 2012.

Epke Zonderland

The 26-year-old who, rather unimaginatively, has been dubbed “The Flying Dutchman” won Holland’s first gold medal in gymnastics for 84 years with a display that wowed the crowds.

Pushed to greater heights by a competitive field which saw reigning Olympic champions Zou Kai of China set the pace with a difficulty level of 7.9 and a score of 16.366 before Germany’s Fabian Hambuchen upped the ante with 16.400, Zonderland pulled off a personal best and an unprecedented routine that culminated with the hardest release dismount – a Cassina to a Kovacs to a Kolman – possible in the discipline. Zonderland was awarded 16.533 points and a place in gymnastics folklore.

Rudisha smashes 800m world record

“My best moment was David Rudisha, just a spectacular performance. Bolt was good but this guy was just magnificent, from a different planet,” was the appraisal of Seb Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 Organizing Committee, after watching the men’s 800m final.

David Rudisha

Coe should know a thing or two about the discipline, having won two silver medals for the distance at the Moscow ’80 and Los Angeles ‘84 Games.

Rudisha blew away his opponents – six of whom set personal bests – and smashed the world record with a time of one minute 40.91 seconds to win gold. The Kenyan is only the third man in 36 years to reduce the world record for the distance, and the feat was hailed by Coe as “moving on the event” in a way that has not happened for 20 years.

Worth remembering too that eight runners, spurred on by Rudisha’s lead, came in under one minute 44 seconds. To put this staggering progression in cumulative time in context, in Beijing, last-place man Andrew Osagie would have won gold with his time of one minute 43.77 seconds.

USA’s flying female foursome

Carmelita Jeter knew it was a fast time; that’s why she pointed with incredulity at the clock as she ran over the finish line as if to say: “Even I don’t believe it!”

U.S. women's sprint relay team

But it was not a dream: the U.S. women’s 4x100m quartet of Jeter (who anchored), Allyson Felix, Tianna Madison and Bianca Knight set the London track on fire with a blistering relay time of 40.82 to win America’s first gold in the discipline since 1996.

A full half-second was blown from a world record that had held firm for 27 years, and they beat a formidable Jamaican team to boot.

“As I’m running, I’m looking at the clock and seeing this time that’s like 37, 38, 39. In my heart, I said, ‘We just did it!’ I definitely knew we ran well,” Jeter told reporters.

The race was just one of three fantastic performances from Felix in London. The 26-year-old claimed gold in the women’s 200m before running with Dee Dee Trotter, Francena McCorory and Sanya Richards-Ross in the 4x400m where she helped the U.S. to their fifth straight gold in the event.

Murray banishes Wimbledon woe

Being a tennis player in Britain carries a weight of responsibility that few other sports can match, for despite hosting arguably the most coveted grand slam on the circuit there has not been a home winner of Wimbledon in the men’s or women’s singles since Virgina Wade triumphed in 1977.

Andy Murray

The pressure exerted by the home crowd on any man or woman who progresses to the knockout stages of the competition usually becomes so overbearing that performance crumbles and hopes are vanquished for yet another year.

Andy Murray has been the latest racket wielder to experience this spiral of self-defeating collective action by the British public. The 25-year-old Scot almost broke the hoodoo when he battled with Swiss master Roger Federer in this year’s final before bowing out in an emotional 4-6 7-5 6-3 6-4 defeat.

But the magic of hosting the Games affected both the crowd at Wimbledon (the venue for the Olympic tennis competition) and something in the heart of Murray. After making it to the final, where Federer stood once again on the other side of the Centre Court net as his opponent, he did not buckle under the burden but rose to play what he hailed as the “biggest win of his life.”

Murray powers on after Olympic gold

Murray steamrolled arguably the best tennis player to live in straight sets 6-2 6-1 6-4 to win gold, four weeks to the day after losing the slam final on the same piece of grass.

Chinese success

After topping the medal table in Beijing, China was always going to be keen to maintain the winning streak at the 2012 Olympics – and garnering over 80 medals has to be seen as a success.

Ye Shiwen

Gold, silver and bronze were won in diverse disciplines but one of the greatest breakthrough areas for China was in the swimming pool. It was in this domain that Ye Shiwen, one of the Asian nation’s biggest stars, emerged in London.

The 16-year-old created headlines around the world by winning the 400m individual medley in a world-record time of four minutes 28.43 seconds. In doing so, she shaved five seconds from her personal best and completed the last 50m freestyle in a time quicker than America’s Ryan Lochte, the champion of the men’s equivalent event. She also claimed gold in the women’s 200m individual medley setting a new Olympic record in the process.

The times were so extraordinary that the Chinese Swimming Association was forced to issue a statement denying allegations Ye had been taking performance-enhancing drugs. Curious too that the same cynicism in the world’s press did not follow any of the other performances listed here in the same manner.

Uganda’s marathon man

Nations like Uganda do not figure in the scrap for Olympic medals often, and in the run-up to London 2012 there was no reason to think that this would change at the 30th Olympiad.

Stephen Kiprotich

But Stephen Kiprotich – a 23-year-old from Kapchorwa who left his subsistence-farmer parents at the age of 17 to live in Eldoret, Kenya in pursuit of his dream to become a champion long-distance runner – had other ideas.

Marathon man Kiprotich ends Uganda’s long wait for Olympic gold

Despite the field for the men’s marathon being saturated with Kenya and Ethiopia’s finest, the plucky outsider beat off the challenge of race favorite Wilson Kipsang and two-time world champion Abel Kirui to become his nation’s first gold medalist since 1972.

“I was unknown before today. Now I am known,” he told reporters on winning the race. “I can say I am very happy to win a medal for my country. I love my people.” The population of Uganda will surely return their feelings in kind.

Positive-thinking pugilist

The Olympic Games has a fantastic ripple effect of inspiration; the action of one champion demonstrating to the youth of today the rewards that passion, commitment and determination can bring.

Anthony Joshua

Arguably nobody proved that better than British boxer Anthony Joshua, who won gold for his nation in the final of the super-heavyweight division on the final day of competition by beating Italy’s Roberto Cammarelle on countback, after the two fighters drew level with 18 points apiece following three rounds.

It capped Team GB’s best performance in boxing since 1920 and was a dream end to the amazing rise of the 22-year-old, who took up the sport only four years ago.

Last year Joshua’s trainers contemplated pulling him out of a scheduled bout with 2008 Olympic champion Cammarelle because of their fighter’s lack of experience. It just goes to show what can happen in a short space of time if you dare to dream.

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