“I honestly can’t believe it,” said Jessica Ennis, fresh-minted Olympic champion heptathlete and thus, as an over-excited BBC commentator reminded viewers more than once, arguably “the world’s best all-round athlete.” The reality of British victory appeared tough to digest, and the national broadcaster’s commentators and pundits sometimes seemed as startled by the phenomenon as Ennis and the five other Team GB gold medalists of the day were. “It’s hard to find the words,” repeated former Olympian Denise Lewis, who had been hired by the BBC to do just that. During the morning of Aug. 4, British rowers powered to first place in the men’s coxless fours (“I can’t believe it, the hours we do, the pain! It’s all worth it in the end,” exclaimed Pete Reed, a quarter of the oarsome foursome) and in the lightweight women’s double sculls (“I can’t believe this is real and we just won!” whooped Katherine Copeland, half of the winning duo). Britain’s cyclists seized the top prize again too, in the women’s team pursuit, setting a new world record in the process (“It’s mad!” cried Laura Trott, a member of the trio. “I can’t believe it!”).
Then came the three athletics golds, for Ennis, long-jumper Greg Rutherford (“I might wake up in a minute!” he told reporters) and for Mo Farah, who became the first ever British athlete to triumph at the 10,000m race. Eyes glistening, Farah uttered the inevitable words: “I just can’t believe it! The crowd got so much behind me and was getting louder and louder.”
My colleague Sean Gregory, reporting from the Olympic Stadium, captured the elation—and bemusement—of that crowd. “I don’t believe I’m here,” cried a Team GB supporter, himself near tears. Beyond the stadium, across the countries that comprise the often less than united United Kingdom, in affluent enclaves and on blue-collar housing estates, via Facebook and Twitter, his fellow Britons were all expressing the same emotions. And that sense of perfect national harmony in turn deepened their sense of disbelief—capped, on Sunday, when Andy Murray did the unthinkable and clinched tennis gold in a straight sets romp over longtime Swiss rival Roger Federer.
To understand why large swaths of the British population are still wandering around with jaws resting on chests inflated with that most unfamiliar of the deadly sins, pride, you have to understand something of Britain’s sporting past and of its history. In the last 100 years, Britain hasn’t just lost an empire; it has lost the bedrock of its national identity, the assumption of being a world power economically, militarily — and in the sports it devised or popularized. Every defeat in a game or discipline once dominated by the U.K. serves up a reminder of that wider loss. When English footballers cede a goal to Germany, it feels, in those few seconds, as if there’s an alternative universe in which World War II ended quite differently. England’s cricketers aren’t just playing a game; they’re replaying doomed attempts to assert superiority over revolting colonials.
These resonances can make the pain of defeat almost intolerable, and because Britons love sport they have long developed coping strategies. The most noticeable of these has been to recalibrate expectations. In their hearts, Brits expect to lose, even if in the run-up to big events they often come close to persuading themselves that their national heroes will prevail after all. This year England’s exit from the Euro 2012 football tournament and Andy Murray’s noble defeat against Roger Federer at Wimbledon provided stinging correctives to these flurries of false optimism and Team GB’s Aug. 4 football loss to South Korea, on penalties, threatened to inject a moment of business-as-usual into the national delirium. If Murray’s Aug. 5 rematch against Federer in the Olympic tennis finals had mirrored the Wimbledon outcome, he would have dragged his compatriots back to earth. Instead he sent them yet further into orbit.
It’s not just British fans whose default mode is set to “braced for defeat”. British sports stars risk being infected by the same contagion, which can undermine their performances. Everyone who has ever watched a Briton snatch defeat from the jaws of victory will recognize the syndrome. There’s a moment when the athlete freezes, thinks “this cannot be happening,” and then everything goes downhill.
The underlying lack of confidence explains why the more frequently Britons have watched other nations receive medals or hoist cups, the more they have come to dominate another sporting discipline. Brits are the world leaders at losing graciously, as Team GB has amply demonstrated during the 2012 Summer Games. The gold medal for generosity surely goes to the men’s gymnastics team, who were already celebrating their silver medal in the July 30 final when a challenge on the scoring for the Japanese team succeeded, demoting the Brits to bronze. “To get a medal is unbelievable,” said team member Louis Smith, smiling broadly. “Silver? Bronze? It doesn’t matter.”
The sentiment encapsulates one of the reasons the London Olympics are so watchable—and why the spirit of these Games seems so closely to fit the Olympians ideal that taking part is more important than winning. The national impulse is so closely in tune with that ideal that Britons don’t just lose graciously; they win graciously too.
These Olympic successes—admirable defeats, generous victories, the sensation that the Games themselves are bringing credit to Britain—all of these phenomena are combining to lift the public mood. The U.K. hasn’t felt this good about itself for a long time.
Yes, there were celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but these were tinged with nostalgia, looking back to past glories and flinching away from the thought of a future without Elizabeth II. Harsher narratives, of economic decline and a fracturing society, have otherwise held sway. Aug. 4 wasn’t just Britain’s best ever day at the Olympics. It was also a year to the day since police shot and killed a Tottenham resident, Mark Duggan, sparking days of rioting.
The Olympics are affording glimpses of an alternative vision of Britain, of a nation united. There are huge problems to overcome to realize this vision, in British sport, much less in wider society. More than half of British medalists at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were graduates of the elite fee-paying schools attended by only 7% of the British population. The class-ridden Britain of 1924, depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire, has not yet been consigned, like the empire, to history. The waves of immigrants, many from that former empire, recognized in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Games for their contributions to British life, cannot yet rely on such recognition outside the Olympic Stadium. But they have been represented on the podium as the national anthem plays, incorporated in the life stories of athletes such as Ennis, the daughter of a Jamaican-born painter and decorator and an English mother, and Farah, born in Somalia and raised in the U.K.
Even in the euphoria following these victories, nobody believes a handful of golds can cure British ills. For a few hours, though, perhaps a day, maybe longer if the fates are kind, Britons are daring to think of themselves as winners.