LONDON — Royal Air Force jets streaked through the sky above Buckingham Palace, leaving a red, white and blue trail of smoke as gold, silver and bronze medals gleamed below.
For the final extravaganza in an extraordinary summer in London, an estimated 1 million flag-waving Britons toasted the sporting heroes who have reawakened a nation slammed by a recession.
A party a decade in the making was coming to an end. And the athletes could hardly believe it as the parade of floats that had weaved through the cheering streets pulled up in front of Queen Elizabeth II’s residence.
“Every street you passed, you could see the masses disappearing into the horizon – phenomenal,” said six-time Olympic champion cyclist Chris Hoy. “Eventually it has to come to an end and that’s the hard part. There is a tinge of sadness … I will never be able to top this.”
Hoy’s two London golds vaulted Britain to third in the Olympics standings with its biggest haul in 104 years: 29 golds, 17 silvers and 19 bronzes.
“You did rack up more medals than France, didn’t you?” roared London’s maverick Mayor Boris Johnson from the stage in front of Buckingham Palace.
“Yeah!” responded the flag-waving crowd on The Mall.
“And more medals than Germany and more medals than Australia,” Johnson added to cheers. “More medals, my friends per head than virtually any country on earth.”
In a typically eccentric speech, Johnson said the parade that started near St. Paul’s Cathedral had brought the summer’s celebrations to a “final tear sodden juddering climax.”
The poster girl of the home
team, heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, was at the front of the parade of 21 floats.
“Sports lovers were excited by the Olympics, but I think there are a few people that weren’t sure as to how it would pan out,” Ennis said. “But it’s just brought everyone together, and it’s been a whole buzz throughout the country.”
Britain’s summer in the international spotlight began in June with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and her granddaughter, Zara Phillips, won a silver medal in equestrian at the Olympics.
“Unbelievable, to think that everyone’s come out for all of us,” Phillips said on board a float weaving its way through the streets. “This is like the whole games though ... the crowd were unbelievable and we are so grateful to them.”
The two trouble-free games defied initial anxiety about security and inclement weather, projecting a new image of the country to the world
“You showed us all that we can be <0x2014> all welcoming, tolerant, vibrant, with a future every bit as exciting and thrilling as our past,” Prime Minister David Cameron said on the stage with the British athletes. “We are a country that may be small geographically, but we can do great things.
“You showed that we can take on the world and, yes, we can win. So let the spirit that delivered these games, that celebrated Britain’s success, that brought this country together, let that spirit live on for generations to come.”
There was little talk Monday as Britain grappled with the post-games comedown about the future use of the venues or the bill of more than $15 billion to stage the festival of sport.
Everyone was savoring one final chance to revel in a summer of good news away from the gloom instilled by the sharp austerity measures being implemented.
“It wasn’t the finest summer of sport we have ever known: it was much better than that,” journalist Simon Barnes wrote on the front page of The Times of London on Monday. “It was the finest celebration of humanity in a quarter-of-a-million years of our existence. It was the best party in the history of the human race.”
A rousing concert featuring Coldplay, Rihanna and Jay-Z signaled the end of the Paralympics on Sunday night in the Olympic Stadium at the heart of the former east London industrial wasteland that was turned into a 226-hectare (560-acre) urban park.
“The Olympics have been so fantastic so we’re really sad it’s all over,” Lucy Alderman, who danced at the Olympics opening ceremony, said outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. “This feels like the end now.”