The motto of the London Olympic Games was "inspire a generation". By the closing ceremony, the host nation would have been justified in changing that to "generations", after its team surpassed all expectations by coming third only to the US and China with 29 gold medals. Though unable to maintain its gold-medal advantage at the Beijing Games, China too came away with inspiration from its most successful Olympics on foreign soil. Even Hong Kong, one of the smallest of the 200-odd competing teams, lived up to the motto by winning a surprise bronze medal, thanks to a career-best performance from cyclist Lee Wai-sze.
China's second place in the final medals table does not signal a setback to its sporting ascent. Olympics hosts tend to peak on the victory podium at their own Games and then suffer an apparent hangover at the next. Nor does it signal a triumph of the American way. If China had performed better in track and field events, it could have reduced the US' overall gold-medal lead. These two competing and contrasting medal machines seem locked in a contest for supremacy with ideological overtones for Olympiads to come. Perhaps it will hinge on whether China can remedy its lack of success in the main stadium. But who would bet the Americans could not improve in other sports?
Sadly, these days, it would not be an Olympic Games without the spectre of drug-cheating casting a long shadow. Happily, so far, no major scandals have emerged. There was a time when outperformance in sports requiring sustained speed or stamina, or both, did not attract suspicion. Instead questions were raised about how, for example, 16-year-old double Chinese gold-medal winner Ye Shiwen could swim the last 50 metres of the 400-metre individual medley faster than the men, and about how formerly suspended drug cheats could come back and win gold.
For the sake of the Olympics and the ideals they have enshrined for more than a century, it is to be hoped sports laboratories stay a step ahead of the cheats.
Cyclist Lee headed up a creditable showing by Hong Kong athletes, with a table tennis pair losing out to Germany for a bronze medal, and a badminton player making the last eight in the women's singles. At 25, Lee could still have her best years ahead of her, including perhaps hopes of a gold medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite the government's HK$7 billion elite athletes development fund and a HK$1.8 billion redevelopment of the Hong Kong Sports Institute, the city lacks the critical element for success of a competitive sport culture from a young age. If Lee's medal inspires more young people to aim at sporting excellence, and prompts the government to enhance its commitment, that would be a fine sporting legacy.