Amazing crowd lift track & field to new heights
LONDON (Reuters) - Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, Mo Farah and Allyson Felix were the stand-out performers of the Olympic athletics programme but the real stars of the show were the fans who created an astonishing noise and atmosphere unrivalled in Games history.
The din reached a deafening crescendo on the final night as the 80,000-strong Stratford Choir roared home favorite Farah to victory in the 5,000 meters and were then treated to Bolt anchoring Jamaica to a world-record victory in the 4x100 meters relay.
Rudisha's crushing world-record run in the 800 meters was widely seen as the performance of the Games, while the American women ending the 27-year-old East German mark in the 4x100 relay was not far behind.
Yet officials and athletes alike have reserved their greatest praise for the crowd, who, unlike in most previous Games, packed out every session. Even the interminable decathlon pole vault, usually played out in front of a few dedicated die-hards, kept half the stadium rapt deep into a sunny afternoon.
The die was cast at 9am on the opening morning when a massive explosion of noise erupted as Jessica Ennis, Britain's poster girl of the Games, flew out of her blocks in the heats of the heptathlon 100m hurdles.
The support helped propel her to the fastest-ever time in the discipline and set her on the way to an eventual gold medal on a memorable treble-gold Saturday for the hosts.
It continued right to the end, with astonishing numbers on the street to see Stephen Kiprotich win Sunday's men's marathon for Uganda.
Veteran Games-watchers had never seen or heard anything like it.
"It was wonderful to arrive this morning and see a totally packed stadium for the first session of athletics. I do not remember the last time this happened and it shows the great affection Britain has for our sport," said IAAF president Lamine Diack, who at the age of 79 and with 40 years' service, is well qualified to judge.
"Athletes will definitely be inspired by crowds like this."
It was a knowledgeable crowd too. They did not need to wait for the scoreboard to know when they had seen a good triple jump or a discus throw that threatened the lead. They shared the athlete's tension when attempting a third high jump after two failures, and, of course, like crowds the world over, they knew how to clap home a plucky loser.
"London is off the chain, that's putting it mildly," said American Dee Dee Trotter who won bronze in the 400m and gold in the 4x400m relay.
"I have never seen a morning session packed out that way. I have never been in a stadium where the people have every knowledge of what's going on, both on and off the track.
"They love the athletes, they just don't care which country you're from. They have just been phenomenal spectators and fans, it has been amazing. They just made this a spectacular Games."
Another American, Brigetta Barrett, had the misfortune to be taking part in the women's high jump at the same time as Farah was running his 5,000m, though she was able to maintain her concentration well enough to win a silver medal.
"The crowd was phenomenal," she said. "I had to cover my ears a couple of times. I could not think."
The noise generated in bringing the hugely popular Farah home was incredible but, as so many athletes pointed out, this was not a one-eyed audience.
Of course, along with the rest of the world, they were mesmerized by Bolt, as the Jamaican became the first man to retain his 100 and 200m titles then added the relay, where the second-placed Americans matched the old world record but were left trailing, to repeat his clean sweep from Beijing.
Bolt was imperious, stamping his authority not only over his rivals but over all those who have come before him as he established himself as unquestionably the greatest sprinter in history.
But the fans recognized class in less glamorous quarters, particularly Rudisha's superb performance in the 800 where he became the first man to break one minute 41 seconds. Not only that, six of the seven men trailing behind him ran personal bests, many of them national records.
"Bolt was good but Rudisha was magnificent - it was the performance of the Games, not just track and field," said London 2012 head Sebastian Coe.
"It was the most extraordinary piece of running I have probably ever seen," added Coe, who has a special affinity for the two-lap event after his own world record of 1:41.73 set in 1981 stood for 16 years despite his two Olympic golds coming in the 1,500m.
The East German 4x100m relay mark, set in 1985 but tainted by association with the country's systematic doping regime, had an even longer shelf life.
Which made it all the more extraordinary that the American quartet of Felix, Tianna Madison, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter took nearly half a second off it with their 40.82 lap.
Felix, so often the bridesmaid, collected three golds in London as she took the 200m and ran in the 4x400 - just reward for an athlete who brings grace and beauty to the track with her wonderfully languid running style.
Her medals helped the United States to top the table with nine golds, 13 silver and seven bronze, their 29-medal haul one short of what had been seen as an ambitious target.
Russia, helped by a domination of the walk events, won nine golds with Jamaica on four.
Britain also scooped four - but deserved 80,000.
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