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Saturday proved to be one of the greatest days in British sports history, as the UK took 6 gold medals.
London — As a public service to North American GlobalPost readers who supplement their knowledge of international news by reading about the Olympics in places like the NYTimes or by watching NBC, I would like to tell you about events yesterday that did not concern Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin, events of a history making sort:
Great Britain won six gold medals Saturday! Three of them in track and field in the space of 90 minutes!
Yes, a nation that has made a profitable business out of sports failure succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Britain, where businessmen speak of the "Wimbledon effect" — it's still the world's greatest tournament even though no Brit has won it in 80 years — has more heroes than it could ever imagine.
Saturday, the Brits won gold twice in the rowing and once at the cycling velodrome. Then, at the Olympic Stadium, Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon, Greg Rutherford, the long jump, and Mo Farah, the 10,000 meters.
Readers, the British nation simply doesn't know what to do with itself. Stiff upper lips wilted. In the BBC's commentator's box, Denise Lewis, heptathlon bronze medalist at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, melted in tears watching Phil Jones stumbling over his questions to Jessica Ennis moments after her magnificent victory. Ennis, of course, could not get through a sentence without the waterfall.
But it wasn't just that British athletes won, it was the way they won. Ennis was in first place going into the last of the Heptathlon's seven events, the 800 meters. She knew that she could finish up to 20 seconds behind her nearest rival and still win the gold. But that's not our Jess (ok, I hold dual citizenship, so when I say "our" it has a wide range of sporting applications). Heading into the final turn, she was fourth in the lead group of women. She could have eased into the finish and smiled. With two flashing strides she took a diagonal through the little pack to some daylight on the outside and then turned on the jets. She won the race by a couple of meters.
Her face went through a thousand emotions at once as the pressure and focus of the last four years dissipated in a heartbeat. Ennis missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with a stress fracture of her ankle. She came back and was designated the official face of the games. It's a wonderful face, no one here has objected to it being on virtually every magazine cover and billboard around the country over the last 8 months. But let's be clear: most British athletes wilt under that pressure. See the Wimbledon effect on Andy Murray, Tim Henman, Roger Taylor (I'm old, forgive me).
Ennis stood up to the expectations.
Next up came Greg Rutherford. At first glance this is not a man you would see winning Olympic gold. He physically reminds me a little of Conan O'Brien, if Conan could be bothered to go to the gym. There is something about redheads with pasty skin that just doesn't scream world class athlete, much less someone who can fly through the air for 27 plus feet. He did it, though. My guess is if you asked the 80,000 people in the stands who Greg Rutherford was before the competition, beyond his parents, girlfriend, coach and physiotherapist, and a few track geeks, you would not find anyone who knew about him. Now everyone knows.
Then came Mo Farah. Born in Somalia, he came to London as an 8-year old child. He is a man with all the talent in the world but it didn't really blossom until he moved to Oregon to be trained by former marathon great, Alberto Salazar.
It was a typical 10,000 meter run with mind-games and shoving characterizing the first three-quarters of the race. Most of the games and shoving were between Ethiopia's Bekele brothers — Kenenisa, gold medalist in Beijing, and Tariku — and a couple of Kenyan runners. They were fighting each other but mostly they were trying to mess with Farah's head. But Farah was very much in the zone. Surge and slow down, surge and slow down, around the track they went.
Just before the bell lap Farah made his move and began to unwind, the Kenyans were struggling, the Ethiopians were just about keeping up. On the final turn Farah broke free and streaked for the finish. His Oregon training partner and good friend Galen Rupp went with him. Gold for Great Britain, silver for the U.S. The pair embraced and then Farah dropped to the track and thanked Allah for the victory.
The cheering on our sofa was incredibly loud. But houses around us were eerily quiet. Many of my neighbors took the copious hints from the London Olympic organizing committee about how crowded the city would be and have gone off on holiday. Too bad. London is empty the way it is in the week between Crhistmas and new Year's. I've been getting around town faster than at any time in the 27 years I've lived here.
A certain communal feeling has been lost, which is a shame. The wins on the track last night showed modern Britain it's true face. Farah, the immigrant, Ennis, the daughter of a Jamaican father and English mother, and ginger-haired Rutherford, Scottish in ancestry but as English a bloke as you can imagine. It would be wonderful to share some of this good feeling with the neighbors in the way we all commiserated a few weeks ago when Andy Murray lost to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. Btw - Murray is getting a do-over today in the gold medal match in the Olympic tennis. I have a feeling Federer may come under severe challenge.
Anyway, the last time British sportsmen and women had a dominant day like yesterday, Britannia still ruled the waves. The First World War had yet to be fought. But don't worry, it won't go to "our" heads. Last night, the British football team lost to South Korea in a penalty shoot-out.
Some things never change.
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