Britain’s Olympic medals success inspires admiration of all things British

Sally Jenkins
Columnist August 6, 2012

I’m changing my citizenship. I like to be on the winning side, and the winning side in this Olympics is British. I know a trend when I see it: First there was their steady infiltrating of Hollywood, the Hugh Granting and Jude Lawing of our films, then their insinuation into our clothes, via Stella McCartney and Burberry. And so I’m just doing the inevitable, before Mo Farah plants his flag in my front garden and calls it a protectorate.

As of Monday night, Britain had won 40 Olympic medals, which was fourth on the list of nations only if you failed to consider population. Per capita, actually, Britain leads among large countries. The tabloid Sun calculated that Team GB has won a medal for every 1.7 million people. Yorkshire alone, with four golds, two silvers and a bronze, would beat out Japan and Australia. A headline happily informed us, “Marvelous Modern Britain Unleashed Upon the World.”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

So you can see how the Somali immigrant Farah would get a little snappish when somebody asked him, after he won the 10,000 meters, if he wished he were running for Somalia. “Look mate, this is my country,” he said.

Given that Britain appears once again to have designs on all of civilisation, I intend to make it my country too. Notice how I spell civilization. Gold medals are heady stuff. “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward said.

Moved by this new patriotic sentiment, I decided to go to Hyde Park to enjoy the Olympics at London street level. Moving across the city, all that Georgian and Regency architecture feels newly victorious. Union Jacks are tied to every lightpole like curtains.

Loitering at Speaker’s Corner was a gent handing out vegan pamphlets in a giant Scooby Doo outfit topped off by patriotic headwear, a headband with a small Union Jack umbrella attached to it. The brolly was open and shading his forehead from the sun, which caused several pedestrians to halt their gaits, and one young lady to stop and stare and ask enviously, “Excuse me, where did you get that hat?”

Someone passing by gave it to him, Andre Misiek replied.

“I just got lucky,” he said.

At the entrance to a large Hyde Park lawn showing five giant screens of Olympic action for free, a grandfatherly-looking man stood over a small boy. “Where’s your flag?” he demanded. After wandering around accepting free handouts and a brief stop at a souvenir stand, I had five Union Jack flags of my own, and was wearing a Team GB bracelet, Team GB sweatbands, and a rain poncho in Britain’s colours. Notice how I spell it “colours” instead of colors. Henceforth gray will be “grey,” center will be “centre,” theater will be “theatre” and tire will be “tyre.”

Also, I will be anti-French. If there is one country that is furious about the new British sports dominion it is France, which lost out on the bid to host the 2012 Games. Last week French President Francois Hollande made some prematurely superior remarks about how Britain “rolled out a red carpet for French athletes to win medals. I thank them very much for that.” Then British athletes won six golds in a single day.

Ever since, the French have been passing jealous and suspicious remarks. The head of French cycling wondered if the British cyclists had “a secret preparation” or “magic wheels.” A French journalist tweeted after Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon that it was “a bit unreal” that she could race in the 800 meters “so easily,” and “without pain.”

In response, British fans have launched a Twitter war. “Bored with God Save The Queen,” a Brit named Ken Tindall tweeted. “When are the cheese-eating surrender monkeys going to win a gold so we can hear La Marseillaise?”

That’s what passes for gloating among my newly adopted people. For all of the gold rush, the British aren’t braggarts. There is a murmured politeness to all their public pronouncements — even when they talk about the most sinister things. A warning printed on a Cadbury chocolate vending cart says, “Mind That Child.” At the entrance to the Hyde Park live-viewing site, even as fluffed grey clouds hover, a huge digital display informed us gently, “The Weather In Hyde Park Is Changeable Today.” In Mayfair, polished brass doorplates bear superiorly cryptic titles. “The London Office,” one reads.

They aren’t going on about it. London is quiet for an Olympic city plotting world dominion, but that’s what makes being British so appealing. They know how to do triumph and revelry without fist-pumping and air jacking. Bradley Wiggins was a rare exception, when he celebrated his cycling gold medal by getting “blind drunk” and tweeting it. There was a slight hum of disapproval about that. But the head of the British organization, Lord Colin Moynihan, deflected it with that effortless drollery that is now my cultural inheritance.

“He may have got a bit dehydrated,” Moynihan said.

For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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