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Ken Dryden: How the London Olympics captivated the world

Ken Dryden, former NHL goaltender, photographed in 2011.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I had always watched the Olympics. I saw Cassius Clay on TV from Rome. I watched the Cold War showdowns – high jumpers John Thomas and Valeriy Brumel; long jumpers Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan – medal count against medal count.

I watched, shocked, Bob Beamon in Mexico City, the Munich massacre, and Ben Johnson in Seoul.

I discovered live in Montreal the greatness of volleyball and the impossibility of gymnastics.

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When Al Michaels rose to the occasion in Lake Placid – "Do you believe in miracles?" – I was the guy beside him who missed the podium. "Unbelievable!" was all I could say.

Many don't like the hype of the Olympics. I love it. They don't like the ceremony, the flag-waving and the spectacle. I love them all. As a kid, to push myself to do something I didn't know I could do, in sports or out, I'd imagine a gold medal around my neck and O Canada being played.

But I wasn't intending to watch much of the Olympics this time. The Olympics had come to seem too much to me. Too many hours and too many days of too many people pushing too hard for me to believe what, in cynical times, I wasn't sure they believed themselves. I'd watch if I had nothing else to do.

It wasn't one moment when things changed. The opening ceremony offer a host city and host nation the chance to portray to the world how it wants the world to see it. Beijing, in music, dance, visual images, pyrotechnics and architecture offered breathtaking conception, aspiration and delivery.

Its straight-between-the-eyes message to the world was, "Look out." Vancouver's was a more conventional story, of what the world sees and knows of Canada but, in the distraction of big events and bigger places, what it forgets to appreciate. Its opening ceremony offered a pleasant, proud, fun reminder.

London could have tried to top the over-the-top achievement of Beijing, and failed. It could have offered a glorious wallow in Britain's history, and remind the world again of what Britain no longer is. It could have been too "royal."

And while the Queen offered a memorable cameo in a James Bond skit, she didn't pander. The Queen doesn't pander. In presenting itself, London might not have had the confidence to try to convey humour to a diverse world where humour doesn't translate, or have looked for cheap laughs, but Rowan Atkinson didn't.

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In its centrepiece medley of Britain's 20th-century music, it could have seemed too much like a Super Bowl halftime, its music too inconsequential for a nation's story. But it didn't. Power may come and power may go, London's message seemed to be, and who knows the future. But if you're a nation that can create Shakespeare, the Beatles and Harry Potter, you'll be fine.

After that, it was one thing after another. The men's cycling road race through London and the countryside, and the rain, not enough to ruin the race but enough to offer one more anxious challenge to the riders; enough to be London. The shots of the city, of which there would be so many more later in the marathons, even in beach volleyball, as the cameras panned back from the cheeky incongruity of bikinis instead of ceremonial armour where the House Guards usually parade, there it was. A stadium full of fans may be a great backdrop, but London is better.

And not just the routine big sites of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace; it was the city itself. The improbability of it stopping, of life willing and able to be interrupted for something.

At this point early in the Games distractions normally set in – a powerhouse nation winning many fewer medals than usual; a positive drug test and a medal stripped away; a favourite chokes. But that didn't really happen.

As China built an early medal lead, the United States was trailing but its women were winning often – a story in itself. Michael Phelps lost but won often enough to seem more human and likeable, not just a great champion.

Canada won a regular stream of bronze medals, an occasional silver medal, and finally a gold. It also came to own the near podium with many fourth- or fifth- or sixth-place finishes. In other times and in other Olympics, this would have generated in Canadians a "typically Canadian, eh?" sourness at our inevitable inability to pull off the big prize. Not this time. This time it was understood as a reflection of the growing strength of the rest of the world. It was seen as promise for the next time.

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Canadians also remembered their gold medal haul in Vancouver two years earlier. There are summer countries and winter countries and some, including Canada, which are both, its Olympic athletes and resources divided between each season's sports.

Taking London and Vancouver together, in overall medal count Canada was sixth, behind the United States, China, Russia, Germany and Great Britain, ahead of France, Japan, South Korea and Australia. The tepid snipes about Canada's results in London came and went.

Then there was the Great Britain team. The Games wouldn't go well for it. The British press would pounce on its failure as it pounces on everything, as it had pounced on Vancouver in the early days of the 2010 Games. Rain and Britain's long lost empire would be the symbols of this failure. Then Team GB started to win, and win some more. One day it won six gold medals. It lost in soccer (men's) to South Korea and (women's) to Canada.

Other times, losing at its national sport, at a game it originated, would have been too much. This time, winning at other things, the pressure off, Team GB won some more.

There were also the little, often poor, countries that won or almost won. Bahamas, population 316,000, gold in the men's 4x400 metre relay (athletics); Trinidad and Tobago, population 1.2 million, three medals in sprints and gold remarkably in the men's javelin (athletics). Botswana, Guatemala, Gabon, Cyprus, Bahrain and Montenegro all won their first medals in history. And beyond the improbable: Grenada, population 109,000, gold in the men's 400 metres (athletics).

Then there's Jamaica, population 2.9 million. Then there's Usain Bolt. The camera never leaves him, and he never leaves it. The billions on the other side of that camera are the real people in his world. His practised gestures might grow tired. His "I am the greatest" routine might grow annoying. But he is so clearly the greatest.

And as much as he knows he's the most important person in the room, he knows he's not the only one there who matters. Most great stars diminish those around them even as they excite them. Bolt makes other people feel good, feel important. He comes out of the starting blocks with short driving strides like he's running in water, until his long legs can unfurl. When they do, it's over. Much is made of how his longer strides allow him to make fewer strides to the finish line. But longer strides don't help if they mean that his legs take too long to hit the ground. The miracle of Bolt is that his strides are long and quick.

The TV coverage surely had its bad moments, but it brought us up close enough to see the extraordinary. And it was great too because it was everywhere. Tired of a third-tier announcer on what until that moment had seemed a third-tier sport, change the channel. And people did, and kept watching. The three Canadian channels carried 22 hours of Olympic programing a day, with 2.1 million Canadians watching on average at any moment, an increase of 88 per cent over the 2008 Beijing Games.

Even NBC's delayed broadcasts were less of an issue. In other Olympics where medal count, star sports and the Dream Team mattered more, a delayed broadcast of a gold-medal moment would've been disastrous.

Like others, I hate watching something I know has happened even if I don't know the result. But in these Games, like others, I watched. I watched because the result mattered less. I knew what I'd see would be amazing.

It was some time during Bolt's gold-medal races, in the midst of gymnastics, men's volleyball and Oscar Pistorius that I lost it completely. I kept blurting at the TV – "No way! No way!" To anyone else in the room whose eyes strayed from the screen even for a second – "Lookit! Lookit!" There's no way that legs that long can move that fast. No way that anyone can throw up an arm, dig a 90 mile-an-hour spike and keep it in play. No way that anyone without legs could even dream of running as if he had legs. As for gymnastics: the floor exercises, uneven parallel bars, rings and – "Give me a break!" – the pommel horse. This stuff just isn't possible.

But it is. I saw it. That's what happened to me this Olympics. The pageantry, the street scenes, the stories, they were all great, but in London 2012 the athletes took over. And not only the stars, and not only in the sports we love. It was athletes as human beings. People who for hours and days and years, out of our sight, pushed themselves to do better and better.

Faster, higher, stronger, but more imaginative, more creative too. Doing things that human beings had never done before; until they were done, often things that didn't seem possible to do.

It was less an Olympics about Americans, Canadians, Chinese or Grenadians, as an Olympics about human capacity, human possibility, what human beings can do. It can seem at times we're only capable of economic meltdowns and political dysfunction, of cruel acts of violence, but we're capable of this too. We saw it – 2.1 million Canadians, minute after minute for 22 hours a day, day after day for 17 days; billions more around the world. We saw it. We know it. And if, as human beings, we're capable of this, what else is in us, and not just in sports?

These were the hopeful Games. They were a celebration of us, and a challenge. London 2012 was our Olympics.

Still giddy from Usain Bolt and the pommel horse, I watched the Games' final events. Even the men's cross-country biking, which other times might have seemed like one of David Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks, was riveting – how do they stay upright over those rocks! The kayak 200-metre sprint, the paddles whirling like the wings of a backyard wooden bird in a hurricane. How can arms move that fast!Then the final capper: the men's 10-metre diving. Three divers, one from the United States, one from China, one from Great Britain riffing each other, dive after dive. Top that! Top that! Top that! And in the pressure, with the consequences of imperfection, they did. Doing 4 1/2 somersaults, spinning too fast to control yet in control, hitting the surface not with an explosion of water, but an implosion. Give me a break!!

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