Every Olympics is a magnet for cynical nattering.
The Games are too expensive, too disruptive to the natives, vulgar expressions of corporate domineering. The athletes are frauds, doped to the eyeballs. A low medal count would be a national embarrassment. And what to do with the barely used stadium after the Olympic flame is snuffed out?
The critics vanished without a trace over the weekend, when Team GB put the Great back in Great Britain. Its athletes defied gravity and friction as if the laws of nature had been eliminated by a wave of Harry Potter’s magic wand.
Magic it was. British athletes won six golds in what was immediately dubbed Super Saturday, the best haul in a single Olympic day since 2008.
On Sunday, Britain nailed two more gold medals. In sailing, Ben Ainslie cruised his Finn dinghy across the finish line like a dreadnought; in men’s tennis, Andy Murray avenged his Wimbledon defeat with a straight-set victory over top-seed Roger Federer. Her majesty’s green and pleasant land finished the weekend in third place in the medal count, behind China and the United States, with an astonishing 16 gold, 11 silver and 10 bronze.
Among the famous gold winners of Super Saturday, a small firecracker of a woman from Sheffield, Jessica Ennis, became the most famous of them all when she won the heptathlon in convincing and elegant style. Britons went mad with rapture. The roar in the Olympic stadium, which reportedly reached 105 to 110 decibels – imagine standing next to a helicopter at take-off – was earsplitting. The roars were repeated every time her face was shown on the giant video screens, and again when the gold medal was draped around her pulsating neck, as she broke into tears.
The outpouring of emotion was more than British pride in athletic accomplishment. Rule Britannia was back with a vengeance, as if Nelson’s fleet were conjured up to set sail. “It gave us a sense of collective pride and lifts the national mood,” Gerard Watson, 50, a legal services civil servant from Bristol, said Sunday. “Times have been tough here and it gives us the sense that anything is possible for Britain.”
Mr. Watson perfectly captured the mood. Britain is a faded economic and military power, a B-list country on a continent dominated by Germany, the new industrial juggernaut. Its economy is in double-dip recession. It is allegedly incapable of doing great things, other than produce some catchy music and costume dramas every now and again.
Then, in one day, it achieved greatness with six rapid-fire golds. The country and its athletes were still capable of superhuman feats after all.
The London Olympics didn’t start on such a high note, to be sure. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony went down a treat (even if the dark satanic mills and airborne Mary Poppins left many foreign viewers perplexed). Then a medal drought followed. Team GB waited five agonizing days for its first gold, leaving Britons worried that the host country might not crack the top 10 list of sovereign medal winners, let alone the top five.
Sound familiar? Canadians went through similar torture at Vancouver in 2010 when Team Canada got off to a slow start. Then, in a flash, the host country was unstoppable. On the second-last day of the Vancouver Games, Canada clinched first overall in gold medals, with 14, and finished on top (if not on overall medal count). The country went wild with patriotism, jingoism and nationalism.
Bradley Wiggins – the modster with famous mod sideburns – was the man who clinched the first gold for Britain in London, when he won the cycling time-trial event. All of Britain wondered: Would there be more?
Indeed there would be. Ennis in the heptathlon; the team of Laura Trott, Joanna Rowsell and Dani King in the women’s team pursuit in the velodrome (whose win triggered a noise rating of almost 140 decibels, possibly a record for an enclosed arena); Somali-born Mo Farah in the 10,000-metre running race; and Greg Rutherford in the long jump, the first Brit since 1964 to win the event.
Two more British golds were won on Saturday in the rowing ponds at Eton Dorney, the first in the men’s coxless four, the second, only minutes later, in the women’s lightweight pairs.
It is possible, even likely, that no event in Britain has captured the public imagination, and fired up the national spirit, as much as Super Saturday did. The only possible contender would be England’s World Cup football victory in 1966, but that was limited to one sport, not half a dozen. In that sense, Super Saturday was a better measure of Britain’s accomplishment.
As Mr. Watson, the Bristol civil servant, and his family were leaving the Olympic site, a roar erupted in one of the lesser stadiums. “There you go,” he said, with a mighty ironic smirk on his face. “Another gold for Britain.”