There's a lot of things we can call the London Olympics, and still not run out of superlatives. The backdrops were gorgeous, the performances spectacular and the hometown fans like no others.
But they're over, and now the official Olympic hangover begins. It will be four long years before the huge traveling circus called the Summer Games puts up its tents in Rio de Janeiro, four long years before we even begin to care again about things like beach volleyball, badminton and cycling.
Store this away until then—a primer of things to look forward to when it unfolds again, on the sandy beaches of Brazil:
LIGHTNING BOLT: Usain Bolt is not only the undisputed superstar of track, he may be its savior. With his spectacular runs in Beijing and London, Bolt has put his sport—ravaged by a lack of standout stars and rampant steroid use—back in the spotlight, at least in Olympic years. After finishing off a second straight three-gold sweep in the sprints Saturday night, Bolt declared that he had accomplished all his goals and had little interest in training another four years to go to Rio. Expect a change of heart, though, with Bolt returning to battle teammate Yohan Blake in the next Olympics. Blake ran one leg of the 4x100 relay team anchored by Bolt that shattered the world record, then offered this up as the gold medal quote of the games:
"We're not normal. To run 36 (seconds) is not normal. We're flying. People call us robots. I said, 'No, we're from space. We drop from the sky like Mr. Bean. Because when he started he dropped out of the sky.' It's just the fun stuff, you know, that we always do. I'm from Mars because I'm not normal. I'm the beast."
Can Rio be this much fun?
NO KOBE: Kobe Bryant seemed intent to enjoy himself watching everything from tennis to boxing in London—and why not? After carrying the team in Beijing, he stepped back and let LeBron James be the centerpiece of this gold medal-winning squad. Bryant will be pushing 38 when the U.S. returns to Rio as the two-time defending champions, and he says he doesn't expect to be on that team. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is leaving, too, but the U.S. talent and coaching pool is so deep that there will be many replacements at the ready. James will likely return for another gold medal run, along with Kevin Durant and whatever superstars can dance the samba.
FIGHTING WORDS: Forget about the U.S. male boxers, who failed to win a medal for the first time and who will all be doing something else by the time Rio rolls around. How about 17-year-old Claressa Shields, who danced and brawled her way to middleweight gold in the first Olympics female boxers were allowed in. If Shields can resist the temptation to turn pro—and it should be easy enough since there is more money in winning medals than fighting on male pro undercards—she could be a huge star in Rio. Ireland's Katie Taylor will also likely be back to defend her lightweight gold, as the women look to build on the spectacular debut they had in London.
SWIMMING ALONG: The U.S. swimming team is a lot like the men's basketball team—reload it every few years and start counting the gold medals. Missy Franklin was the breakout star in London, an engaging teenager who won almost every time she got in the pool. Missy the Missile won five medals, four of them gold, to help the U.S. team win 31 medals (16 gold) in swimming—nearly a third of the total U.S. medal haul in London. The U.S. team will, of course, miss the greatest Olympic medal winner ever, Michael Phelps, but there is plenty of talent to remain the dominant country in the water. Another swimmer to watch will be Ye Shiwen, China's 16-year-old swimming sensation, who swam the last 50 meters of the 400 medley faster than Ryan Lochte did in winning the equivalent race for the U.S. men.
PHELPS REDUX: Phelps announced his retirement after becoming the most decorated Olympian ever, but can he resist the lure of the pool in Rio four years from now? Maybe, but it's hard to imagine Phelps being content to sleep in and work on his golf game when he sees guys he used to always beat getting ready to compete for the golds he once took for granted. Phelps will be 31 in four years, but would still probably have enough in the tank to add one or two medals to his collection in his fourth Olympics.
BLADE RUNNER: A lot of people saw Oscar Pistorius as little more than a sideshow attraction in London, a double amputee good enough to run in the semifinals of the 400 and the finals of the 4x400 relay. He finished last in both, but won over fans—and the world media—with his perseverance and engaging personality. Pistorius has big plans for Rio, where the best thing is he'll be seen like his fellow runners see him—as a normal guy who just happens to have spring blades strapped to his upper legs.
BEACH PEOPLE: No one had more fun in London than those lucky enough to score tickets to the party that was beach volleyball. But how about beach volleyball on an actual beach? Rio has plenty of them, and doesn't need an excuse to throw a few parties of its own. Three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings plans to be back, but partner Misty May-Treanor is hanging up her bikini.
TIGER WOODS: Yes, golf will be in the Olympics, thanks to one of the most misguided decisions in the history of the games. There's nothing special about golf's best players getting together for a big tournament, because they do it probably 10 times a year and already compete for their country in the Ryder and President cups. Expect Woods to drape himself in an American flag to take on the best from Northern Ireland and England while Vijay Singh tries to win gold for Fiji in what could be the dullest competition of the games. That's assuming they ever get the Olympic golf course—which has been plagued by delays—built in Rio.
So there it is, in all its Olympic glory. All of a sudden, four years from now doesn't seem so far away.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg