In a nation known for cool reserve and a tendency to expect the worst, the opening days of the London Games brought a period of national self-flagellation as early gaffes plagued organizers and not a single British athlete struck gold. But in a story of perseverance, redemption and surging pride, Britain is starting to believe.
After an initial drought in Olympic medals, the last couple of days may just be the greatest in the history of British sports. This host nation of 62 million had claimed 16 gold, 11 silver and 10 bronze medals after a wildly gilded weekend, including a victory by runner Mo Farah, the first British man to win the 10,000-meter race, that sent a panel of normally calm BBC commentators into fits of raucous screams.
Disproving doubters who questioned Britain’s “Olympic spirit,” a record-breaking domestic television audience is watching these Games. And as Farah took the gold, even Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, caught up in the moment at an Olympic Stadium awash in Union Jacks, broke with British reserve in a somewhat awkward man-hug.
How much better could it get? A lot. On Sunday, Briton Ben Ainslie became the most decorated sailor in Olympics history by claiming his fourth gold medal. But the moment of the day came when Andy Murray, a Scot, dispatched No. 1-ranked Roger Federer with shocking ease, claiming the gold on the very tennis court where he suffered a deeply personal loss against Federer in the finals of Wimbledon last month.
As Murray’s last ace bulleted across the net to win the match, a sudden roar could be heard echoing across London, where cheers went up from backyard barbecues and pubs, sports bars and Olympic venues. Miles away at the main Olympic Park in East London, British journalists, infamously jaded and bubbling with sarcasm, spontaneously rose to their feet and exploded with applause. As “God Save the Queen” played while Murray, on the medal stand, basked in redemptive joy, a stoic nation suddenly seemed to have not a dry eye in the house.
“Oh, I cried like a baby,” said Steve Adamson, a 35-year-old computer engineer, who watched “the Murray moment” with friends at the Farringdon Sports Bar in East London. “The British are good at saying we’re not excited about something until the moment comes. But then it does come, and we’re all cheers and tears.”
Britain, in third place in the medal count behind China and the United States and ahead of Russia, Japan and Germany, has roughly double the number of gold medals it had at the same point in the 2008 Beijing Games. Britain could still end up fourth by the close of the Games, as it did in Beijing, or even lower, but observers say the country may nevertheless be on track for what could be its largest medal haul ever.
Though still smarting from ticketing problems, patchy weather and overhyped fears of transit nightmares that have driven away business from London hotels and restaurants, Britain has already begun patting itself on the back for an Olympics job well done. The Royal Mail is gilding the mail boxes near the homes of gold medalists.
The official Olympic Web site here, according to the government, has become the most-viewed sports site in the world, with 25 million visits on Saturday alone and a full quarter of its traffic coming from domestic sources. Defying those who said the British would issue a collective yawn during the Games, hundreds of thousands of Londoners have turned out to cheer on “Team GB” at big screens set up for the ticketless in Central London.
To be sure, millions here still seem utterly disengaged from the Games, seeing them as a nuisance or a bloated, overly commercial event. But the record television audience here also includes those like Natasha Lipman, a 23-year-old university student in London, who professed herself a skeptic at the start of the Games.
“We have been doing so fantastically well, and for our athletes to be performing so brilliantly on their home soil is really special,” she said. “I didn’t really care about the Olympics before it started. Now I can't stop watching.”
Britain’s biggest day of the Games so far came Saturday, with this nation winning six golds — its biggest one-day haul since 1908 — before a record TV audience of 17 million. At the Olympic Stadium, second in line to the throne Prince William and his elegant wife, Kate, tested the boundaries of royal protocol by yelling boisterously and doing “the wave.” At one point earlier in the day, Paul McCartney joined in an impromptu sing-a-long of “Hey Jude” at the East London velodrome after a team of female British cyclists struck gold.
“There was a narrative yesterday of infectious success, and it is a day none of us will ever forget,” Sebastian Coe, the head of London’s Olympic organizing committee and a four-time medal winner in middle-distance running, said Sunday. “Yes, I think it probably was for me the greatest day of sport I have ever witnessed.”
In front of a capacity crowd of 80,000, who roared “loud enough to be heard on the moon,” according to an editorial in the Sun newspaper, Britain seized three gold medals in 44 minutes of track and field events late Saturday. Jessica Ennis, Britain’s national sweetheart and literally the poster girl of the 2012 Olympic Games, jumped, threw and ran her way to the gold in the heptathlon. Greg Rutherford soared farther than all others at the long jump before Farah capped a remarkable evening that left Britain reeling with joy.
By Sunday morning, the nation woke up to a British press that was saving its vinegar for the fish and chips. “Sensational,” declared the Daily Telegraph. “Simply amazing,” said the Observer. “Jess the best day ever!” said the Daily Mail, with a picture of Jessica Ennis, all smiles and washboard abs.
Alex Carval, a 29-year-old media executive, leaving the Olympic Stadium after Farah’s win on Saturday, strutted along singing: “Farah, Farah, Farah-dise,” with three British friends.
“It was a massive emotional night,” he said. “I don’t think any of us have ever had a night like this before. Three gold medals in one hour. It’s the best Olympics we’ve ever had.”
Eliza Mackintosh and Michael Wise contributed to this report.