Long-awaited gold might help ignite the fire within Team GB
Breakthrough win for first medal lifts Games’ host country out of its pessimism.
Published: August 2, 2012 12:19PM
Updated: November 30, 2012 11:31PM
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Scott D. Pierce

London • For four long days, it has been hard to tell just exactly how the host nation was feeling about the London Olympics. Every success felt tinged with disappointment, every compliment tempered by a complaint.

But all that might have just changed.

On the fifth day, “Team GB” finally enjoyed the breakthrough it had been waiting for, winning two gold medals and maybe — just maybe — lighting a fire under a nation that seemed, at best, a little uncertain how to feel about everything so far.

“Everyone’s been looking forward to that moment,” said Jessica Ennis, the heptathlete seen as one of Britain’s brightest stars. “Now that we’ve got it, hopefully it will keep inspiring the rest of the team.”

Athletically, Team GB came in with soaring medal hopes after a strong performance four years ago at the Beijing Games, with a marketing campaign that promised “Our Greatest Team.” Off the field, organizers hoped to re-introduce the world to a modern London, built for a global economy.

Until Wednesday, though, all of that felt a bit out of reach.

Although millions of fans turned out to watch the Olympic torch, security scandals and transport worries dominated headlines in the lead-up to the Games. Complaints about vast sections of empty seats at several venues — in addition to mostly dreary weather — took over once the competitions began.

What made it all worse was that the home team had little to cheer for.

Cyclist Mark Cavendish failed to win the men’s road race on the first day, as had been widely anticipated. Divers and canoeists and judoka unexpectedly crashed out of the medals, and beloved world-record holder Paula Radcliffe had to pull out of the women’s marathon with yet another injury.

Even the medals Team GB did win felt unsatisfying.

Swimmer Rebecca Adlington took only bronze in the 400-meter individual medley, for example, after winning gold in Beijing, and the men’s gymnastics team earned its first gymnastics medal in 100 years — which was great, except that it was also just bronze.

Even the Queen’s granddaughter fell short, with equestrian rider Zara Phillips knocking off a rail and blowing her shot at Britain’s first gold.

Officials warned they might have to scale back their medal target of 70 overall, after winning 47 in Beijing — the most since hosting the Olympics for the first time in 1908, when only 22 nations took part.

“Wanted: Gold Medal,” one of the tabloids blared.

But the moment finally came Wednesday morning, at the Eton Dorney rowing center west of the city and near the River Thames.

Rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning blew away their rivals in the women’s pairs event, racing through the finish line and collapsing joyously into one another, “ecstatic and shattered, at the same time,” as Stanning put it.

Miles away, a thunderous roar erupted from the thousands of fans who had gathered to watch on a giant video screen at the sprawling Olympic Park. Journalists in the main press center stood and cheered.

“We’re generally a pessimistic country, in the best of times,” said Peter Coote, a fan from suburban London with a Union Jack flag tied around his neck. “So until it started, people were all a little ‘meeehhh.’ Now it has started, and people are starting to get into it.… For us, it’s always a case of that first gold. Once we’ve got the first gold, I think we’re off and running.”

Indeed, it took only a few hours before Team GB notched its second gold, by cyclist Bradley Wiggins in the men’s time trial, with teammate Chris Froome third. Much like the rowers, Wiggins dominated the field, winning by a staggering 42 seconds.

“I cannot put it into words,” said Wiggins, a four-time Olympian and former gold medalist in track cycling. “I wouldn’t do it justice. It was really incredible, to win an Olympic gold in your home city. When you win in the velodrome, there are three or four thousand people cheering. Here, around the streets of London, the noise is just amazing. I don’t think anything will top that.”

And just like that, the road looks bright and rosy.

Most of Team GB’s best events — rowing, sailing, track cycling and boxing, among them — are yet to come or yet to finish, and even the crowds at the Olympic Park seemed energized, much larger and happier than ever.

“The atmosphere has been electric, to be honest about it,” said Clare Dyson, a young teacher from London. “Everyone’s talking about it, on Facebook and Twitter. Everyone wants tickets.… I’ve been to three events now, three consecutive days, and I haven’t got anything to complain about. I’ve had a really good time. It’s been great.”

Maybe the surest sign that good times are ahead for the Brits came during Wiggins’ triumphant ride to Hampton Court Palace.

As the reigning Tour de France champion powered his way to victory amid the hordes of cheering fans who lined the road and waved their flags, the sun — long absent — emerged from behind the clouds.” .

“It’s a fantastic day,” said rower Alan Campbell, himself with an upcoming chance at victory in the singles sculls final. “Hopefully, the start of the gold rush.”

mcl@sltrib.com

Twitter: @MCLTribune