Today, China stands taller, stronger and more able than the rest
Sixteen glorious days of sport leaves the hosts more confident than ever before, says PETER SIMPSON
Sixteen days of glorious sport comes to an end today and with it the end of a salient chapter in China's sports history.
Eight days before the Games began, our special Going For Gold pullout highlighted how China's quest for sporting respect and dominance began in 1949 with the inaugural speech by the then State Physical Education and Sports Commission leader, He Long.
He said sport should be the most potent ingredient in the medicine chest used to cure China's image as the 'sick man of Asia'. It has been a long, painful recovery forever blighted by controversy.
But today, China stands taller, stronger and more able than the rest. That's what the medal table shows, that's what it is there for. It's why the Olympics are staged.
Of course, Beijing 2008 will be remembered for other issues, such as smog, lip-synching and other messy matters. But that is what happens when you try to make a political statement through sport, which China just has - as well as dazzle in the gym, on the court, on land and on water.
But forget all that - and let's marvel at the legacies that have already been cemented.
On the last Saturday of the Games, the blistering sun is streaming into the Bird's Nest. The place is bustling with fans, many are part of families, many have trumpets, drums and flags and are sitting relaxed, sipping drinks and nibbling snacks.
The Argentinians and Nigerians care little for the heat. The game, and with it the day, has come alive thanks to Angel Di Maria's exquisite chip goal.
For 90 minutes, all of life's strife has been forgotten, along with the squabbling over the gymnastics age controversy.
Here we are living the legacy not just of Olympics, but of sport, which has, via the Games, been brought to the forefront of our busy minds. On the field of play, all has gone sweetly.
We wept with Michael Phelps and his mum, and we whooped with Calypso track king Usain Bolt. We melted before the ice-coolness of Guo Jingjing in the diving pool, smiled at the purity of human joy as hundreds of athletes stepped upon the podium and broke into grins as wide as the Great Wall.
China triumphed over the world's great sporting nations with a calculated plan to target the medals that count, and they did so without help from Yao Ming and Liu Xiang.
The US were humbled, the British were the surprise of the show, and gave the organisers of London 2012 the best possible start to their campaign to get the UK public and media on board.
And how glorious it would have been if Nigeria had won gold in the soccer final - what an appetiser that would had been for the World Cup in South Africa in two years.
No matter. Argentina were the better side.
And the ball-boy, who just threw the ball to Javier Mascherano and got a wink of thanks in return, will be tuning into at least one sport for the rest of his life.
One of the great legacies of the Games are the amazing stadiums. These shall act as a magnet for great international sporting carnivals. China will become a regular point of interest on the global sporting calendar.
In the UK, it is hoped the four-year run-up to the Games and the recent success of its athletes, will inspire two million people to take up sport.
In China, the number of new sporting enthusiasts who might be enchanted by the Olympics goes off the chart.
The IOC took a gamble when it gave China the Games. It gambled on its reputation, and arguably, on China's, too.
There will be a lot of analysis over the coming months, and years to ascertain what the true legacies will be.
We have spoken with many a sceptic over the past 16 days. Sneers and doubts still remain, and trenchant views are plentiful. But perceptions have been changed, if only by them engaging with those of us who have watched with a critical eye as Beijing and the other Olympic cities prepared.
Hopefully, the Games - and Team China's success - have paved the way for more confidence and a stronger sense of nationhood among our hosts. Finally, perhaps, the national illness lamented by sports chief He nearly 60 years ago has been cured.
And through the Olympics and sport China now has the confidence to take a loss on the chin, learn from it and rise up to try to win next time, to take a regular place in the stands and cheer with the highs and cry with the lows.
And keep coming back for more, week in, week out. The Games depart in a few hours. It's back to work tomorrow, back to the grind and a chance to ask the next burning question...For the sake of dads with sons to entertain each Saturday - just when will this mighty sporting country sort its soccer team out?
Time of the closing ceremony: 8pm