It was “mindblowing,” it was “crazy,” it was “insane.” The athletes who brought home 185 medals and inspired hundreds of thousands of people to flood the streets of London struggled to find the words to describe a celebratory trip of just under 3km that was the end of a rather longer journey for most of them.
It was, as London Mayor Boris Johnson put it — in a show-stealing speech on the Mall that again left the prime minister, David Cameron, in the shade — the “final tear-sodden juddering climax” to Britain’s Olympic summer.
Sir Chris Hoy, for whom it marked the end of an Olympic career that has brought six gold medals, said: “I got a little more emotional. You’re on the streets and suddenly it hits you. You just saw the joy on people’s faces. It was unbelievable.”
After dismounting from the stage, Olympic and Paralympic athletes, from runners to wheelchair rugby players, lined up to reflect on a golden summer that will soon be over.
“It was only second to that Olympic final,” said Greg Rutherford, who won gold in the long jump on the first “Super Saturday” in the Olympic Stadium. “It was absolutely out of this world, the crowds were incredible. Everybody was amazing and I got so teary so many times going round it.”
For rower Kath Grainger, who with Anna Watkins finally won gold in London at the fourth attempt in what many picked as their moment of the Olympics, the parade was “hugely enjoyable.”
“There were so many wonderful people. It was slow enough that you could make eye contact with people who were genuinely touched and passionate and excited about reliving the Olympics all over again,” she said.
“You just think: ‘Wow, how lucky are we. How lucky are we to be athletes at this time, in this country, at a home Games and performing at this level.’”
Johnson paid direct tribute to the athletes who had helped make the Olympic and Paralympic Games such a success in a speech that elicited loud cheers.
“You brought this country together. You routed the doubters and for the first time in living memory, you caused Tube passengers to break into spontaneous conversation,” he said.
“You showed that success is not just about talent and luck, but about grit and determination. You produced such a combination of tears and joy on the sofas of Britain that you not only inspired a generation, but you probably helped create one as well,” Johnson said.
For David Weir, the wheelchair-racing phenomenon who won four gold medals at a Paralympics that transformed the perception of disabled athletes, the parade represented a chance to begin the process of taking stock of all he had achieved.
“I had a good cry yesterday after the marathon,” he said. “It was quite tough afterwards. I feel like a rock star or a footballer at the moment. To go through the crowds of people saying my name and holding up banners, it’s incredible.”
Twenty-one floats crawled along the route from Guildhall to the Mall, carrying 750 of the 900 athletes who have become such distinctive figures in their Great Britain kit over the summer.
“It is the most amazing experience. All those people who came out to support us again. It made the Olympics for us,” team eventing silver medallist Zara Phillips said.
Phillips cannot have imagined her summer coming to an end on a stage outside Buckingham Palace next to her mother, British Olympic Association president the Princess Royal, and the Pet Shop Boys, who were drafted in to sing a celebratory song. She said the size of the crowd shocked her.