After London's Olympic high, Britain faces glum reality

In the end, London put on quite the show, Olympic history was made in the pool, on the track and with women athletes, and the hangover probably won't be too severe, Tom Parry reports.

A few days ago, while waiting for the shuttle bus that ferries media out to the Olympics site, I found myself standing next to two volunteers for the London Games.

Dressed in the purple and tan uniform of London's 70,000-strong army of unpaid helpers, the pair was taking shelter from the afternoon sun and their conversation revolved around a single topic: how much they'd miss the Olympics.

"What will we do when this is all over?" one asked the other, with a hint of melancholy in her voice.

"Go back to normal life," sighed her friend.

For Britain, the past two weeks have been an amazing ride, the capstone to a summer of ceremonies that began in June with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

After years of planning — and some last-minute panicky hand-wringing — the country and its capital proved themselves more than capable of putting together a one-of-a-kind Summer Games that will likely be talked about for years to come.

The London Olympics provided so many historic sports moments that it is hard to draw up a list without feeling you've left something out.

There was Usain Bolt successfully defending, in dramatic style, his title of the world's fastest man, and sending his fellow Jamaicans into fits of euphoria from Kingston to London to Toronto.

American swimmer Michael Phelps, less flashy than Bolt, but no less an athlete, achieved something no other Olympian has ever done — amass a career total of 22 Olympic medals, six of them won in London.

Olympic history. South Africa's Oscar Pistorius runs in the men's 4 x 400-metre relay on Aug. 10. (AP)

South African runner Oscar Pistorius became the second amputee to race in the Olympics after another South African, Natalie du Toit, participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in the women's 10-kilometre marathon swim.

These were also the first Games to see every country send at least one woman athlete, as gender holdouts Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia finally bent to international pressure.

For Canada, these were more of a transitional Games in which Canadian athletes took home the same number of medals as in Beijing four years ago but fewer golds and silvers. Many of our veterans had a tough go, while a new and sometimes unheralded group of younger athletes took on starring roles.

There were certainly highs and lows.

Canadian sprinters were devastated when they were disqualified and denied a bronze medal in the men’s 4 x 100 metre relay.

At the same time, the Canadian women's soccer team galvanized a country and overcame a last-minutes loss to the U.S. to beat France for the bronze and claim Canada's first Summer Olympic medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.

Add to all that Britain's host of new national heroes, like cyclist Chris Hoy, now the U.K.'s most successful Olympian, and Jessica Ennis, the heptathlon champion who became, for Britons, the face of these Games.

The real legacy

The party is not quite over. Britain will still play host to the 2012 Paralympic Games, which kick off Aug. 29 and run to Sept. 9 at the Olympic Park.

But when they're done, it's back to reality, the end of Britain's summer of fun.

"I think it's going to be like the country's got a hangover," says Jo Trevenna, a teacher from Milton Keynes, northwest of London, who managed to snag a few tickets for the final events. "I think we'll all be a bit sad."

Britain may well have memories of these Games that will last generations and London's beat-up East End, site of the Olympic Park, is set to be transformed by billions of dollars in new infrastructure and investment brought in by the Games.

Still, it will be some time before the real legacy is known.

Britain is mired in economic doldrums. The economy has flat-lined and the ruling coalition government is fraying at the seams. The feel-good factor of a successful Games, despite the psychological boost, is unlikely to do much to turn all that around.

"This might have had a mildly positive impact but not a massive raging boost," says Tony Travers, a professor of local and regional government at the London School of Economics.

Travers says big events like the Olympics rarely have a lasting effect on a country's economy and that Britain and especially London, a hub of global finance, are at the mercy of much bigger events like the survival or demise of the euro.

Get off the couch

As Travers sees it, the Olympics and subsequent boost to national pride have been "an unexpected high for London. Even the weather has, by the standards of this summer, been not bad," he says.

America's Michael Phelps, with 22 medals and twice as many golds as the nearest competitor, is the world's most decorated Olympian. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

But the Olympics have only nudged the more difficult issues out of the spotlight for the time being, not banished them entirely.

"The news, if it were not for this going on, would be pretty glum," he says. And Britons now have to brace for the hard choices to return.

It's only natural for the glow of gold medals to fade of course. But when Britain landed these Games it also had hopes that they would help bring about a behavioural change in people's attitude toward sports.

Britain has no shortage of sports fans. The country is mad for soccer and cricket.

The trouble is — as in other countries — people here prefer watching sports to actually playing them. It's an acute problem in Britain, the home of greasy fish and chips and long nights at the pub.

In London's Olympic venues, there was one slogan posted everywhere, almost a catchphrase of the Games: Inspire a generation.

Hosting the Games was meant to prod young and old into a more active lifestyle and Sport England, the agency responsible for promoting sport across the country, feels that there is evidence this is happening.

Since 2005, when London was awarded these Games, the number of people playing a sport more than once a week has gone up by about a million, to 15 million in survey this summer, the agency says.

The test now, of course, is whether they stick with it and there is some evidence to suggest that this spike in physical activity may be only temporary.

Researchers at the University of Kent looked at the example of Athens, which hosted the Summer Games in 2004 and found that five years on, the number of people who said they were getting regular exercise had dropped by 13 per cent.

In the end, it's perhaps a bit early to talk about the legacy of the London Games. Olympic athletes are still showing off their medals and trading their stories. Sports fans are still talking about where they were when records were smashed and history made.

And in the countries that didn't do as well as expected, the re-evaluations have yet to really start.

Britain's problems, its worries and even its bad habits are all still there and will all need to be addressed. For now, though, the country can take a breath — and a bow — for putting on a tremendous show before it's back to normal life.

London Mayor Boris Johnson amid a sea of Olympics volunteers. (Associated Press)