LONDON -- At tonight's closing ceremony, the sun just had set and all of seven minutes had elapsed before God Save the Queen wafted from the speakers of Olympic Stadium. By this time, who among us didn't know the words? The British national anthem has been in such heavy rotation during these London Olympics, playing each of the 29 times a local athlete occupied the uppermost level of the medal platforms.
In our universal urge to distill complex events to a single catchphrase, the London Olympics were rendered the "Games of the Girls" and the "Social-ympics" and the "Legacy Games." They are also the Home Field (and court and track and course) Games. In particularly dramatic fashion, time and again, athletes from the host nation, Team GB in the shorthand, outperformed both the competition and expectation.
The home-field advantage in sport is, of course, no myth. Pick any league, anywhere in the world, and cumulatively, the home teams win more often than the visiting teams. This has been true throughout history -- in no Major League Baseball season have road teams collectively won more games than home teams. The rates of "home advantage" are remarkably constant by sport -- the home winning percent in Latin American soccer leagues is virtually identical to the home winning percentage in European soccer leagues. We've see it consistently at the Olympics, too. Greece won 16 medals at the Athens Games, then four in Beijing and only two in London. The Chinese athletes went from 63 medals in Athens to an even 100 in Beijing and then down to 87 here. During these Games, British athletes won more golds than they did in Athens and Beijing combined. Talk about minding the gap.
The source of this advantage is ripe for discussion. Just as NBA players don't shoot free throws more accurately at home than on the road (and NFL quarterbacks don't pass more accurately at home) there's little in the data to suggest that the actual performances of Olympic athletes improve at home. Put another way: would Mo Farah necessarily run slower or Usain Bolt run faster had these Games been held in Montego Bay? Doubtful. The conventional wisdom is that the home athletes benefit from the cheering and the hoards of flag-waving fans; but you could just as easily makes the case it adds unwanted pressure, especially in this once-in-a-lifetime context. And while "home" athletes surely benefit from a familiarity with the weather or idiosyncrasies of the venue, how to explain, say, cyclist Mark Cavendish -- one of Britain's brightest medal hopes, competing on a road course he surely knew better than anyone else -- finishing 29th?
We should point out, too, that the metrics are crass, violating the first rule of statistics and making apples-to-oranges comparisons. Host countries are entitled to an entry in every event, so the delegation is artificially large. (More "draws," of course, means more chances at medals.) More important, the comparisons don't account for the uptick in funding that, inevitably, attends the host. When you can devote $5 million in financing synchronized swimming or $25 million for canoeing, as Britain did in advance of these Games, you damn well better improve your performance.
The real source of the home advantage? While it doesn't much lend itself to empirical examination, there was, undeniably, an infectiousness to success. British athlete after British athlete saw their teammates prospect gold, soak up so much glory and thought, You know what? I can do that too. To borrow a phrase, they kept calm and then they carried on. Andy Murray, the British tennis player, reckoned that he took a back seat to no one in watching various competitions. He watched, inspired. "I see how much it means to all of the athletes when they do it, how much work goes into it; I wanted to be part of that if I could." Then, last Sunday, he joined the gold rush, beating the Mighty Roger Federer -- which he failed to do on the exact same court four weeks prior at Wimbledon.
This cohort of "homeside" winners could scarcely have formed a more likable bunch -- so much so that sports marketing types feared that the quantity and quality of the British champions means that the endorsement opportunities will be diluted. Plus, they could not have formed a better representation of British society in 2012. Jessica Ennis, the biracial heptathlon champion, hails from Sheffield and radiates populist appeal, befitting a star athlete engaged to a man who works on construction sites. Alistair Brownlee, a 24-year-old from Yorkshire who won gold in the triathlon, studies finance and looks like he'd been plucked from the Downton Abbey estate. As for Farah, when asked whether he would have preferred representing Somalia, his country of birth, and not Britain, he had perhaps the most minimalistically eloquent line of these Games. "Look mate," he said, "this is my country."
The country celebrated it all in kind. In today's Independent newspaper (they still do newspaper here, yet another reason to love this country) Farah graces the cover and a special section promises "Mo-mentos." Riding the Tube, you're just as likely to see someone wearing a "Team GB" shirt as you're likely to see someone reading Fifty Shades of Grey -- which is saying something. Even on the staid BBC, broadcasters regularly trafficked in the nationalistic pronouns -- us, we, ours -- that their NBC counterparts had been trained to avoid. As Prime Minister David Cameron gloated this morning on the telly, "It's been an enormous confidence boost ... If you work hard and plan and are passionate, you can turn things around and that's the lesson you can take away."
And yet for all the home advantage, for all the pride in how "their" athletes fared, there was a graciousness to it all. Britain was like the Little League parent whose kid had hit a home run, but was quick, and genuine, in acknowledging the shortstop's defense or the pitcher's masterful outing. In June, Britain held a Diamond Jubilee, an exercise in self-love. That out of its system, the country was free to celebrate the athletes, irrespective of country code.
The tone was set during the opening ceremony. In the past, these elaborate pageants have played like global marketing campaigns from the national tourism and culture ministries, infused with an unmistakable theme. Sydney: We're doing OK for a former penal colony, wouldn't you say? And we know how to have a good time, mates! Athens: We have a rich history, but remain vital and kind of relevant. Beijing: Behold our might! The theme in London was ... well, what exactly? We suspect you are familiar with our written word, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Rowling, our music from the Fab Four to the Coldplay? Or: We join you in gently mocking our quirks? Or: We lost the Empire but we still have our s$#% together?
There was no grand statement, no sense that national identity hung in the balance. So the hosts -- hosts who had done this drill on two previous occasions -- celebrated the world. Bolt, rightfully, received more media coverage and admiration than any other athlete. Michael Phelps and the Dream Team and the Mexican soccer contingent and Irish boxer Katie Taylor and the women representing various Arab countries for the first time, they all got their due. The coolest and most raucous venue may have been the sandbox/bandbox where the beach volleyball was held. The games played to a packed house, the stands studded with British Royalty and royalty, from William and Kate to Beckham. Yet they had come to cheer Americans and Brazilians.
So, too, did London, paying no heed to the nationality of the principal figures, stress those magical unscripted moments that make the Olympics what they are. The father of South African swimmer Chad Le Clos dissolving into tears after his son beat Phelps in the 200 butterfly. The photo finish in the women's triathlon, a two-hour race decided by a smaller margin than a Bolt sprint. The almost unendurably touching scene of Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang injuring his Achilles heel, struggling back to the track, stopping at the last hurdle to kiss it and then finding the embrace of the fellow competitors as he was helped off the track
The operative word of these Games was epic. There were "epic races" and "epic matches" and "epic performances" all during an "epic fortnight." But the classical definition held as well. The hosts did a, well, epic job conveying the heroic quests and the undulating plotlines and the majestic conquests. There was an unmistakable sense that this was the feel good movie of the summer, big-budget as it may have been.
And while organized religion may be in decline here, you couldn't help but wonder whether higher powers were rewarding all this graciousness. The temperamental British weather cooperated magnificently, rain staging a merciful boycott. Inevitably, there will be a doping scandal, but it didn't come during these 16 days. Nor did we witness a more sinister act, the consequence, perhaps, of a $2 billion security budget. When you stage an event of this magnitude and the chief "scandal" is that opportunistic badminton players took advantage of a flawed format or a guy got stuck on the zip line (OK, the guy happened to be London mayor, Boris Johnson), you're doing pretty well.
At the closing ceremony, following the National Anthem, it was back to the fun and surreal. With a massive Union Jack replica in the middle of the infield, Madness performed -- appropriately, Our House -- while riding on the bed of a semi. The Pet Shop Boys followed, singing as they were shuttled around the track via rickshaw. There were forgettable boy bands and the venerable Who, a Queen laser show, a heretofore unseen Jon Lennon video, a George Michael performance, the Spice Girls reuniting and Eric Idle encouraging us to look on the bright side of life. Naturally, it ended with a fireworks show. And, splendid as it all was, it didn't match the pyrotechnics that took place in the same stadium over the past two weeks.
As the torch is now passed (quite literally) to Brazil, it's as good a time as any to acknowledge the hosts. We congratulate them for the bounty of Team GeeBee medals, for making the most of the home advantage. We thank them for their hospitality. For making "nations see, that men should brothers be. And form one family, the wide world over" (see lyrics: God Save the Queen). For one hell of a jolly, good time.
Truly, it was epic. It was Great, Britain.