Britain bask in Olympic laurels

So what do they do for an encore? Over two weeks, Olympic Britain has become used to a daily diet of awe at its own success; of cheering on the excellent to feats of greater prowess; of rediscovering a sense of possibility that had been muted.

The cavalcade of Team Great Britain’s Olympic medal  winners included the Somalia-born Mo Farah. REUTERS

All too often in the past, Britons have deluded themselves about their prospects of sporting success, only to see their heroes tumble in the face of a real challenge.

 But, contrary to all the curmudgeonly grumbling that preceded them, the Olympic Games have replaced such ambiguity with a tally of 29 gold medals, exceeded only by the United States and China, as if the nation had been blessed by what Samuel Smiles, the Victorian advocate of individual will and self-betterment, called “the gift of miracles.”

The simple answer to the question of an encore is that Britain’s attention will turn to the Paralympics later this month. But the legacy of the London Games may lie in something more imponderable, a finer sense of a nation relaunched, albeit in a time of economic doldrums that could yet becalm its renewal.

 Most lands tend to see the Olympics through their own jingoistic prism, and Britain has been no exception, focusing obsessively on its triumphs – though not to the exclusion of the great sporting moments provided by non-Britons like Usain Bolt of Jamaica, among others. But consider just a few omens.

 The games took place almost exactly a year after riots and looting spread from London to other British cities, shocking the country with a vision of a society whose greed had produced an underclass fueled by violence, envy and alienation.

“Of course, the comedown will happen,” Suzanne Moore wrote in her column in ‘The Guardian’.

“But we have seen ourselves for a while in our best light: glittery and happy, belonging to something bigger than all of us.”

“Here we are, all in it together, just for a while,” she added.  What were the markers along the way? First off, perhaps, was the opening ceremony, a celebration of a land at ease with its past and its present. But then, with the men’s 10,000 and 5,000-meter runs, when Mo Farah, who had arrived in Britain from Somalia as a child, took gold twice and enfolded himself in the union flag, something else seemed to crystallise about these games.

 True, some of the contests – dressage on fancy horses, for instance – have long been the domain of a privileged few. But here were voices from a different Britain.

The cavalcade of winners included the queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips (silver, equestrian), but it also ranged over a spectrum of skin tones and a medley of speech patterns – the accents that signal origin and, to a large extent, education and class.

 And who was doing the talking? The “golden girls,” as one headline writer put it, included Nicola Adams, a black 29-year-old flyweight from northern England who became the first British woman to win Olympic gold in boxing, restriking the gender balance, at least on the victor’s podium.

Team GB

 The banner under which the athletes jousted for glory also bespoke a greater sense of inclusion. Britain often competes internationally with separate teams from its component parts. But the Olympics offered a chance for Great Britain – Team GB – to draw on broader reserves of talent.

 “So the Union Jack has been rescued from the old connotations of vanished empire and has become a vibrant, colourful symbol of contemporary British identity,” ‘The Independent’ said in an editorial, suggesting that the surge of Britishness, engulfing athletes like Andy Murray (Scottish, men’s singles tennis, gold), may at least temporarily drown the clamor for Scottish separatism.

 Of course, this could all get too gushy, coming only weeks after Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee coaxed forth an equal stirring of the national soul. The British still have a talent for taking success for granted until complacency proves their undoing.

For all the Olympic excitement, this is a country facing deep economic woes. From anecdotal evidence, the $14 billion games may have set the economy back further, frightening would-be visitors and Britons alike away from central London, even as others thronged the Olympic Park.

 After the closing ceremony on August 12, it seemed even more difficult to imagine how Britain might produce an encore. Perhaps the answer lay in a recalibration of the national myth, evoked in what could be the fondly self-mocking anthem of this rediscovered Britain – Monty Python’s Eric Idle leading the Olympic Stadium in singing his classic song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

 “Sporting failure has fitted comfortably into the story of a nation in decline, a country that has lost an empire and failed to find the goal net,” the often dystopian broadcaster Jeremy Paxman wrote in The Sunday Telegraph. But the “biggest revelation” about the games “is the obvious one,” he said. “A nation that had elevated failure into a conviction is actually rather good” at its opposite.

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