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.
With that decision, Britain launched into a full-scale building program -- one that involved not only bricks and mortar, but also bodies. Specifically, it set a robust goal of finishing fourth in the gold medal standings in 2012 -- up from its 10th-place showing in 2004.
Said Simon Clegg, chief executive of the British Olympic Association: "The government realized that the men and women in the street in our country will judge the success of the Games in 2012 not by how efficient the transportation is or how beautiful the architecture is, but by how many British athletes stand on the podium."
As Beijing proved, Britain is ahead of schedule -- fourth in the gold medal standings and trailing only China, the United States and Russia.
Much of that success stems from Britain's traditional prowess in what some derisively refer to as "the sitting-down sports" -- cycling, sailing and rowing.
But even those teams are flexing new muscle thanks to the infusion of cash. Britain spent a record $470 million on preparing its athletes for Beijing. And officials said they plan to spend about $800 million more helping their high-performance athletes gear up for 2012.
In Beijing, British track cyclists flat-out embarrassed the field, winning seven of the 10 gold medals offered.
Chris Hoy, 32, a Scot famous for his massive thighs, claimed three of those gold medals, becoming the second-most successful Olympian in British history, bowing only to Stephen Redgrave, who won five rowing gold medals from 1984 to 2000.
According to Jamie Staff, 35, who teamed with Hoy and Jason Kenny to upset world champion France for gold in the men's team sprint, the rout was the result of heart and dollars -- with the money funding everything from sports psychologists, revolutionary rubberized racing suits and racing bikes that reportedly cost $26,000 each.
Said Staff, "With the lottery funding, we have the best coaches, the best equipment, the best of everything in the world."
Britain's sailors also dominated, winning six medals -- including four gold medals -- in the regattas in Qingdao.
Thanks to sailing's share of lottery money -- roughly $4 million a year -- all 18 members of the Olympic team now receive stipends enabling them to train full time. The team also has its first corporate title sponsor, the insurance and investment company Skandia.
As a result of the largesse, Britain's Olympic sailors can afford to ship their boats to regattas all over the world (nine container loads were shipped from Britain to Qingdao) and travel with a staff that includes a fitness trainer, physiologist, nutritionist, psychologist, boat-repair and maintenance workers, and a full-time chef.
Even more encouraging has been Britain's success here in sports that aren't its traditional strengths. That's where Britain needs to make gains in the run-up to 2012.
Louis Smith, 19, won Britain's first Olympic medal (a bronze) in a gymnastics apparatus final, wowing judges with the most difficult routine attempted on the pommel horse.
And British swimmers brought home six medals, including two gold medals claimed by 19-year-old Rebecca Adlington, the first Briton to win swimming gold in 48 years. Promised a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes by the mayor of her home town if she won a gold medal in Beijing, Adlington decided to go for two pairs and crushed Janet Evans's 1989 record in the 800-meter freestyle to do it.
For some back home, the taste of major Olympic success has been an odd contrast from the days when Britain sent the likes of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards to the Games. Edwards gained fame as the worst ski jumper at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.
"Whatever happened to the British love of heroic but buffoonish failures?" the Guardian newspaper asked in a recent article. "Failure is always more interesting -- and more entertaining -- than success."
Success also is more costly.
Britain is spending at least $18.6 billion to build Olympic venues near the center of London, including a major land redevelopment in the blighted area of east London that organizers call "Europe's largest urban regeneration project."
Beijing reportedly spent more than twice that, $40 billion, to construct the infrastructure and iconic venues that supported its Olympic Games.
Johnson, the London mayor, said he was "dazzled" but not intimidated by the result after touring Beijing's Olympic Green. Despite a far smaller budget and population, Johnson said, Britain would rely on "our native wit, our gift for pageantry and our fantastic ingenuity" to stage an Olympic Games that will be equally impressive.
Nonetheless, many in Britain are skeptical that a quality Olympics can be delivered without the price tag escalating wildly.
But flush with its most impressive medal haul since 1908, nothing sells quite like success in Britain just now.
"They couldn't have any better PR, could they really?" veteran British sportswriter John Wragg said in the Daily Express. "If you come home with 40 or so medals -- 20 of them gold -- people must really feel good about it. And it's not often in Britain that we win things in sports."