In Medal Count, It's 'Haul' Britannia

By Liz Clarke and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 24, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 23 -- The final indignity for Britain came at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which its athletes won just one gold medal and were outperformed by such dubious sporting powers as Kazakhstan and North Korea.

This week, a hero's welcome awaits Team GB (as its Olympians are known), which will be flown home on a British Airways 747 with its nose painted gold in honor of Britain's best Olympic showing in a century.

Some are hailing Britain's performance at the Beijing Games -- in fourth place through Saturday's events with 47 medals, including 19 golds -- as the "Great Haul of China."

And with it, the country that had grown inured to its also-ran status on the world's playing fields has developed a swagger, giddy over what its athletes achieved in Beijing and what that portends for 2012, when London will host the Olympics.

"Britannia Rules the Games," shouted the headline in the Sun tabloid, Britain's largest-selling newspaper.

On Sunday, tens of thousands were expected to converge on the Mall near Buckingham Palace for a party marking the handover of the Olympics to London.

London Mayor Boris Johnson will make it official at Beijing's National Stadium, where he will accept the Olympic flag during the Closing Ceremonies. He'll be joined by British icons Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist, and soccer star David Beckham, who's expected to arrive atop a red double-decker bus and kick a ball into the stands.

Not since 1908 have British Olympians performed as well as they have in Beijing.

That year, London's first as the Games' host, British athletes won a record 146 medals, including 56 golds. It didn't hurt, notes Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, that several sports had exclusively British participants in 1908, such as polo and tug of war, in which a team of eight London policemen outmuscled their counterparts from Liverpool.

The effort to resurrect a once-proud Olympic tradition nearly a century later was spurred by Britain's dismal showing in Atlanta. As a result, government officials in 1997 began funneling hundreds of millions of dollars from the National Lottery into training and facilities for Olympic athletes.

For the first time, Olympic hopefuls could afford to train full time, and the results quickly showed. Britain won 28 medals at the 2000 Sydney Games and 30 at the 2004 Games in Athens.

But the most significant change came in 2005, when the International Olympic Committee voted to award London the 2012 Games.

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