London Rings

From whiff waff to water polo, Olympic sports are heeding the call and heading home for a great Games

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David Goldman / AP

The Olympic rings are lit with pyrotechnics during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Summer Olympics on July 27, 2012.

There are the usual provocations—the scramble for tickets that left many locals disappointed, the prospect of transport disruption, the expense, especially in the middle of Europe’s economic turbulence. Closer to home, Scotland is getting rebellious again and planning a referendum on independence in 2014. (Team GB’s soccer squad is notably Scot-free.) In other quarters of the kingdom, the notions of undifferentiated “Britishness” and “Team GB” are not uncontroversial either.

London’s winning the Games has also coaxed out the curious British ambivalence about winning anything. John Morton, writer-director of the BBC TV mock­umentary series Twenty Twelve­—which purports to chart the behind-the-scenes Games preparations, led by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville in the fictional role of “head of deliverance”—muses that Britons’ impulse to talk down the Olympics may be connected to Britain’s discomfort with talking itself up. Self-deprecation is in the national DNA. “Whenever I go to Italy or France or Spain or New York, all those places have a much clearer sense of who they are and what they are, unapologetically, than we do. I think to be British and to be at all thoughtful means being apologetic,” Morton says.

His compatriots are flinching at the prospect of saying sorry for the temerity of taking on the Olympics—and there have already been more than a few glitches. Twenty Twelve’s imaginary Olympic countdown clock failed at its launch; the real Olympic countdown clock, in London’s Trafalgar Square, stopped hours after its launch (and, by unhappy coincidence, less than a day after the airing of the clock episode of Twenty Twelve). Far more seriously, G4S, the private company that was contracted to supply security staff, admitted only 16 days before the start of the Games that it had failed to recruit sufficient numbers. The shortfall will be made up by thousands of members of the British military who might otherwise have expected to be spending their leave watching the Olympics on the telly.

The episode reinforced British self-doubt, but history shows it’s the self-doubters who are usually proved wrong. Barroom wisdom asserted that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee would prove a damp squib. Last month, the 1,000-boat flotilla to mark the anniversary turned out to be, meteorologically speaking, the washout that British Cassandras had predicted. It also attracted 1.2 million rain-sodden spectators, a TV audience of 10.3 million and highlighted the flip side of national pessimism. Forecasts may dampen expectations, but when the day dawns, no matter what the weather, nobody parties like the Brits.

Every Loser Wins
Homegrown pessimists were also out in force before the London Olympics of 1948, as the nation embarked on preparations. London had staged a successful Olympics in 1908, but 40 years later, impoverished and war-scarred, the city faced daunting challenges. The weather lived down to expectations. A record-breaking heat wave soon gave way to relentless rain. Equipment had to be scrimped, accommodations improvised. Athletes took unpaid leave to compete and weren’t always thanked for their efforts. Alan Geldard, a member of the British team that won a cycling bronze, returned to work after the Games only to be sacked for taking the time off.

Team GB’s rations were meager compared with the diets enjoyed by delegations from countries less impacted by World War II. The U.S. athletes thrived on steak and fresh fruit flown in from California, while the Chinese imported bamboo shoots. British Olympians did enjoy an enhanced daily allowance of 3,900 calories—the same amount that was granted to coal miners—but many of the calories came in tinned or powdered form.

Beef-fed Americans won the most medals. Team GB came 12th out of 59. The chorus of the specially commissioned 1948 Olympics song encapsulated British attitudes about that inevitable result: “Let us be glad/ But not because of the winning.”

It’s a refrain that might have been scripted by Twenty Twelve’s Morton—and in 2012, it still reflects Britain’s relationship with sporting glory. Winners will be lionized, but losers will be taken just as closely to the nation’s hearts. “We’re good at losing,” says Morton.

Wilcox echoes that point as she describes the development of the women’s water-polo team from rank outsiders who used to lose matches by 10 or 20 goals to rank outsiders who lose only by a goal or two, thanks to funding from Britain’s national lottery. That improvement is reflected in her team’s odds of 250 to 1 at bookmaker William Hill, compared with the unfunded U.K. men’s team, at 1,000 to 1. Wilcox doesn’t rule out a scenario in which the British underdogs triumph. “Everyone says the Olympics is somewhere anything can happen, and I genuinely believe that’s true,” she says. But Team GB isn’t focusing on winning. “It’s all about the process, not the outcome.”

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