Cyclists wearing wind-tunnel-tested helmets churning down The Mall, where the royal household cavalry in bearskin hats has been Trooping the Colour for two centuries.
Archers shooting at Lord’s Cricket Ground, where the new Pavilion was built in 1889.
Swimmers stroking through the weedy waters of the Serpentine, which was originally Queen Caroline’s private bathing pool.
Horses at Henry VIII’s birthplace, Greenwich Park, jumping over barriers constructed to resemble a miniature Tower Bridge or Stonehenge or twin telephone booths.
Rowers scalpeling the surface of Eton Dorney Lake as grazing sheep paused to watch.
Triathletes running around Hyde Park, former hunting ground of kings.
The venues of the London Olympics were brilliant and beautiful. The setting of the Games captured the essence of one of the world’s most enchanting cities.
What will distinguish London 2012, what will stick in the mind, is how athletes made history in places steeped in history.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” wrote Samuel Johnson.
The glorious backdrop of the city lent a timelessness to these Games.
Beach volleyball, staged in Horse Guards Parade, was surrounded by buildings with countless stories to tell. From the bleachers, fans could watch players in bikinis and sunglasses spiking a ball into imported sand or survey the rooftops of the city as a chimney sweep might. They could see the dome of St. Paul’s, hear the tolling of Big Ben. They were steps from Winston Churchill’s War Rooms bunker and could peer into the windows of the prime minister’s residence at No. 10 Downing Street.
London was transformed into one huge theater for actors and audience.
Drama played out in the marathon, as runners marked time passing city landmarks. In 1908, the marathon started at Windsor Castle so the king’s children could watch from their nursery window. Thus was born the 385-yard addition to 26 miles. This time, the runners crossed Westminster Bridge, immortalized by Wordsworth in his poem: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.”
Here, you can go off on a jog and find yourself in a park that was a cemetery in 1715, passing by the gravestone of Cromwell’s favorite granddaughter.
You can walk by an institute of cutting-edge medicine and see the blue ceramic tile noting that Charles Dickens lived in the adjacent house.
London combines the past of its cobblestone lanes with the futuristic design of its velodrome; Beefeaters still locking themselves in for the night at the Tower of London with women cloaked in black carrying Tesco grocery bags; solicitors wearing wigs with kids of Caribbean heritage rapping at Speakers’ Corner.
Mo Farah, Somali-born, London-bred, a Muslim, sang God Save the Queen from atop the medal podium, bringing his countrymen to tears.
How fitting that London, one of the most diverse cities in the world, was the place where, for the first time, every country participating in the Olympics was represented by female athletes. It was here that Saudi Arabia finally gave a runner and a judoka the right to compete.
During the 2004 Athens Games, the shot put competition was held in Olympia, birthplace of the Games, and the marathon was run along a route similar to the one Phidippides ran.
But London has an Olympic history of its own now, as the first city to host three modern Games.
There was soccer at Wembley, tennis at Wimbledon.
Many athletes were sad to say farewell to Londoners, who had been so good to them. There was an exuberance that broke the stereotype of the reserved Englishman, and in the sunshine of the past two weeks, Londoners reveled in the spirit that surprised even them.
“Everywhere you went, on the train, on the street, people were hugging you just for being you,” U.S. runner DeeDee Trotter said.
Support was universal and deafening. Irish boxer Katie Taylor heard resounding cheers and chants and said, “I feel like I’m in heaven.”
The Games’ 70,000 volunteers were warm, polite and funny. Notice how everything sounds more articulate with a British accent?
“Mind the children” is printed on ice cream trucks. What we call a cone they call a cornet. We would command “NO DUMPING.” They ask “Kindly deposit rubbish elsewhere.” They say “Sorry, luv,” even when it’s you who bumped them on the Tube.
“London this morning to me really does feel like the capital of the world,” mayor Boris Johnson said Monday.
There are certain places where the Games should be held again and again: Lillehammer, Sydney, Vancouver/Whistler, London.
Next time, maybe fencing at the ancient duel site in Green Park. Or weightlifting on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe.
Cheers, Britain. You call yourself Great, and that is no exaggeration.