SPORTS

Britain big winner at London Olympic Games, no matter who tops medal standings

08/12/2012 01:36 EDT | Updated 10/12/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Forget the medal standings. Britain is the big winner at these Olympics with huge crowds lining glorious backdrops and athletes draped in the Union Jack.

From the cycling road races and marathons contested on the streets of London, the raucous beach volleyball venue surrounded by history or ear-deafening Velodrome, the Games played out against mouth-watering settings.

"We're very happy," said IOC president Jacques Rogge, despite looking his normal lugubrious self.

There were minimal scandals and stars like Usain Bolt lived up to their billing. Michael Phelps left with six more medals (one more than Turkey, Croatia, Ireland or Mongolia). And Niger rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka won a legion of fans for finishing last.

"It's not easy for me to be here," Issaka told reporters. "I don't have any technique. I've been learning only three months. But with the time and the years, I'll get the technique."

Following his last-place performance in the F final of the single sculls, Issaka can now lay claim to being the 33rd-fastest rower on the planet. Sort of.

Fortunately the Olympic transportation system went faster than Issaka. Fears of gridlock during the Games proved to be ill-founded in most part and it seemed many of the designated Olympic lanes were returned to their rightful owners for long stretches of the day.

Reporters at the Games usually do not respond well to news that their bus driver is lost. But a wayward trip to the Eton Dorney rowing venue passed without comment as the passengers got a bonus drive-by of Harrods.

The Games volunteers and British military, pressed into action to fill the void left by private contractors, were truly smiling, gracious ambassadors. Those at the Games will leave with a new appreciation of British manners.

Games organizers also showed a sense of fun from the get-go.

Packing Mr. Bean, the Queen and James Bond into the opening ceremonies, not to mention the Arctic Monkeys, demonstrated both a sense of humour and a dash of cutting edge.

The British have style, especially in London, and it showed.

The Games opening also featured 27-year-old rapper Dizzee Rascal who, from the BBC studio on the Olympic Park grounds, was able to point out the council estate where he grew up. He marvelled at the transition, while hoping that positives continue after the Games.

At times, Londoners seemed to go about their lives oblivious of the Olympics. But the nation cheered as one for the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and fellow cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton and runner Mo Farah.

Canada's 18-medal storyline here is somewhat more complicated.

It ends somewhere between Norway and Sweden in 35th spot, if you go by gold. Or 13th, between Ukraine and Hungary, by total medals.

Canadians competed, cursed, wept, crashed, stepped over the line, and launched protests. In other words, they played their part in the Olympic drama.

"The team is amazing," said chef de mission Mark Tewksbury. "I think that's what I take from this. What the team was able to do through these highs and lows, and the people that they became through that is, as a chef (de mission), the rewarding part.

"The performance will be analyzed and Own The Podium and COC will do what they have to do with that to figure out how to do even more in the future."

For those keeping track, Phelps, and fellow American swimmers Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and Allyson Felix combined for 19 medals, one more than Canada.

For what it's worth, in my book, every medal shines at the Olympics.

Anyone who saw rower Andreanne Morin clutch her silver medal in the wake of the women's eight or paddler Mark Oldershaw beam with pride after his canoe bronze knows that gold is not the only winning colour.

"For me this is the culmination of my 12 years of rowing," said Morin, a 30-year-old from Quebec City.

Oldershaw, a third-generation Olympian from Burlington, Ont., who acknowledges that nerves got the best of him four years ago in Beijing when he failed to make the final, had the whole country driving him forward, it seems.

"The whole race I was staring at the nose of my boat and there's a big Maple Leaf on it," he said. "It's just such a good feeling and I've been getting so many tweets and messages, it's so awesome."

And climbing the podium is not the only measure of success.

Take Tory Nyhaug, a 20-year-old BMX rider from Coquitlam, B.C., who sacrificed his spleen for the sport several months ago after a nasty crash in the Netherlands.

He failed to make the semifinals here but left on a winning note, finishing first in the last run of his quarter-final heat.

Talking to the media mere minutes later, sucking in air, an emotional Nyhaug still took time to congratulate the riders who did advance ahead of him and to thank the Canadian Cycling Association and B2ten — which helps fund Olympic athletes — for helping him get there.

"The Olympics are an amazing experience," he said. "I'm so glad I got to compete."

Or Calgary track cyclist Monique Sullivan who made a point of sending a shoutout to teammate Zach Bell of North Vancouver, after he finished a disappointing eighth in the men's omnium.

"Today was heartbreak for Zach, but he's come so far," said Sullivan. "And the omnium is really a tough event to get right."

Whatever medal table you choose, it doesn't measure the commitment put in by the athletes.

That is shown by the sobs of Edmonton track cyclist Tara Whitten after a fourth-place finish in the women's omnium or the single tear running down kayaker Adam van Koeverden's face as the four-time Olympic medallist from Oakville, Ont., talked about the Games swan song of friends like Simon Whitfield, Clara Hughes and Alex Despatie.

Or the words of Richard Clarke, who sailed in the Star class with Tyler Bjorn, as he explained the toll on his family taken by the many months spent away from his home on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

"It breaks my heart when you hear (seven-year-old daughter Zoe) tells her friends 'Dad doesn't live at home.' She tells her friends that her Dad loves sailing more than her.

"Those are things I will promptly try to fix when this is done."

Clarke finished 12th competing in his fourth Games. It wasn't for lack of trying or support. His boat carried the names of scores of Canadians who donated to help keep his Olympic challenge afloat.

There were 44 world records and 117 Olympic records at the London Games. Halifax kayaker Mark de Jonge had one of those Olympic records when he won the first ever heat of the K-1 200 metres in the Olympics. His mark was promptly erased in the next heat by Britain's Ed McKeever, who went on to win gold ahead of de Jonge in bronze.

"History being written by many many athletes," said Rogge, listing off the likes of Bolt, Phelps, Hoy (sixth gold medal), sailor Ben Ainslie (fourth straight gold and fifth medal) and British tennis star Andy Murray (Olympic gold won at Wimbledon).

While a few like Bolt and Wiggins continue in the spotlight, most return to the real world or look to make ends meet while they continue training for their next challenge.

McKeever, for example, is a trainee accountant when not being "the Usain Bolt of the water."

"I don't know if you realize, but canoeists don't make a whole lot of money, so I need something to fall back on at the end of the day, and accountancy gives me a solid career to look forward to in the future," McKeever told a news conference after winning gold.

But medals and records are not the only badge of honour here. And contrary to expectations, being a world champion or World Cup winner doesn't mean success at the Olympics is waiting for you.

Winning a medal is "REALLY hard," said van Koeverden, who reckons he did 60 1,000-metre sessions in the last three weeks leading up to his race.

"You can be a world champion one day and the next day you're fifth," said Canadian soccer captain Christine Sinclair of Burnaby, B.C. "It's very competitive obviously. On any other given day, we might have lost the bronze medal game. Or we might have beaten the U.S. Or we might not even have made it out of our group."

Or as Victoria cyclist Ryder Hesjedal put it: "It's not like a video game. You don't just press a button and say I want to go on the front now."

MORE:cpSports