London: If they awarded Olympic golds for “heaviest bags under the eyes”, there would have been many contenders.
But aside from trying to stay awake after the greatest time of their lives, the international athletes heading home from Heathrow this week face few of the wearisome obstacles found in airports.
Granted, some 6ft 8in-plus members of Russia’s men’s volleyball team were forced to stoop their way through the scanners; and those proudly wearing their medals were politely asked to take them off and place them in the plastic trays along with the rest of their belongings to be security checked.
But otherwise, the temporary Games Terminal (basically a huge tent the size of three Olympic swimming pools) meant it was a day for “personal bests” all round in the departure dash. And there was no need to test your endurance in that traditional British event — the marathon queue.
For the athletes, leaving London was a walk in the park (almost literally, given the terminal’s decor). If anyone’s spirits did flag, there were guardsmen in bearskins ever ready to lift them again.
“Hello, Malaysia!” bellowed one from a sentry box, as some of that country’s divers strolled in. Cue plenty of photos for the scrapbook as they each posed with the “soldier” (actually, like the others, an actor).
Onward to security, where the conveyor belts through the scanners were decorated to look like brick walls and adorned with iconic London street signs.
Faux neo-classical columns arched the athletes’ route through to an astro-turfed lounge decked out to look like a park (complete with more staff dressed as park wardens).
No need, of course, for 4ft 11in Jun Hoong Cheong, from Malaysia’s 3m springboard diving team, to duck. Then off she went for more photos, this time with another two “guardsmen” who were pretending to ride on two model stags.
“They are so cute,” said the 22-year-old. “The Olympics here has been so fine. I didn’t make it into the semi-finals but I had a great time, walking around London and shopping. I bought all sorts of souvenirs.”
Nearby, a couple of Portuguese athletes were delighted by the near life-size cardboard cutout of the back of a double-decker Routemaster bus (Number: 2012; Destination: London) and snapped away on their cameras as they took it in turns to pretend boarding it.
In here, you rub shoulders with champions too. On Monday, Ireland’s gold medal-winning boxer Katie Taylor was boarding a flight back to Dublin.
The softly spoken 26-year-old she was looking forward to going home after the “most incredible two weeks of my life”.
“It’s going to be a bit mad, so I’m a bit nervous,” she said at the prospect of the euphoria set to erupt on her return to the Emerald Isle, adding with a smile: “I’m quite gentle out of the ring.”
She could not wait to see her family, especially her grandmother Kathleen Cranley, who has just turned 80. “She’s always been supportive of me and has been living for this moment,” Katie said. “It’s been an incredible Games and I have been privileged to be part of it.”
The feel-good factor was everywhere. Tumua Anae, 23, of the US’s gold medal-winning water polo team, said: “The Games were awesome. The people were so good to us. All the volunteers were so friendly and gave us a lot of support. I have to say to Britain — you guys did a great job.”
Russia’s Maria Savinova, 27, who won gold in the 800m, said: “It’s the best Olympics, I like London. Yesterday I went to Big Ben — so beautiful.”
About 6,000 athletes and a further 9,000 Olympic coaches and officials were expected through the Games terminal on Monday, its busiest day. It will also be in use on Tuesday and Wednesday.
No aircraft depart from it. Instead athletes take an airside coach to their final departure point, where they can mingle with regular passengers as they wait for their flight.
The athletes are then clapped into each terminal by a “guard of honour” of Heathrow volunteers to wish them luck in their future sporting endeavours in one last golden goodbye from London.