‘We Got Willy Wonka’s Ticket’: Inside Britain’s Big Night at the Track

Within an hour, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, and Mo Farah won track and field golds for Great Britain, leaving the crowd, and the nation, gushing

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U.K.'s Jessica Ennis competes in the javelin during the Heptathlon at the Olympic Stadium, London, on Aug. 8, 2012.

As he exited the Olympic Stadium on a magical night for the home team, Angus Golding, 25, was pretty close to shedding tears. He had witnessed one of the greatest nights in British sports history: within an hour, three British track and field athletes took home gold medals. As Jessica Ennis, Great Britain‘s poster-girl for the Games, finished the 800-meters to win the heptathlon, American Will Claye failed to leap 8.31 meters and catch Greg Rutherford in the long jump, and after Mo Farah broke from the pack down the stretch of the 10,000 meters, the capacity crowd, about 80,000 strong, let out deafening roars.

“They all had such sheer composure,” Golding was saying. “I don’t believe I’m here. This is the single greatest night of athletics this country will ever have. This will never happen again. I feel like crying, honestly.” He stopped himself — barely — and headed out for the pubs. Steve Wilkinson, 44, was leaving the stadium with his family. “We got Willy Wonka’s ticket,” he says. “We’re very lucky.”

Going into these Olympics, Ennis was favored to win the heptathlon. Over the past few days, her face has been plastered on countless newspapers and magazines. A loss may have triggered national mourning. But she delivered. Ennis enjoyed a healthy lead going into the final event, the 800-meters. After she crossed the line, she fell to the ground, covering her face. Ennis knew she had done it.

(MORE: Video Interview With Jessica Ennis)

Why is Great Britain so invested in Ennis? “She’s an astonishing combination of a great athlete and lovely person,” says David Luard, 31, a small business owner from London. “Every man who sees her secretly loves her. Or openly loves her. It’s a damn shame she’s engaged.” Ennis grew up in Sheffield, England — an old northern steel city — and missed the Beijing Olympics after breaking her foot. “You know, these Olympics are all about passing a torch to a new generation,” says Luard. “She’s a fantastic example for kids. It’s not about being f—-d up and drugged.”

Rutherford’s long jump title was a surprise, and Farah’s finish was thrilling. As he sprinted the last 50-meters, Farah’s friend and training partner, Galen Rupp of the U.S., chugged behind him. But Rupp couldn’t catch him. After they both crossed the line, Rupp gave Farah a disbelieving look, and held up his fingers. They finished one-two, Rupp was telling him.

Afterward, Rupp said it was “still weird” seeing a Brit and American atop a distance race podium. For years, runners representing African nations have dominated this event. At one point in the middle of the race, Farah tapped Rupp on the shoulder, encouraging him to relax. Both Rupp and Farrah train under Alberto Salazar, the legendary American runner who won three straight New York City marathons in the early 1980s. Rupp made some history too on this evening: he won America’s first medal in the 10,000 since 1964.

Farah has ties to Africa: he was born in Somalia, and moved to Great Britain when he was eight. “This is my country,” Farah says of Great Britain, in case anyone question his “real” British roots. On Saturday night, many U.K. Twitterati hailed Farah’s win as a victory for multiculturalism, and a rebuke to the xenophobic far-right forces in British politics and the media. Before the start of the race, the Olympic Stadium feted Farrah like a native son. “It was like someone gave me ten cups of coffee,” Farrah says. “It was just like, ‘whoa.’ The crowd pumped me up so much.”

After the gold rush, few fans wanted to leave the track. Thousands stuck around for Ennis’ medal ceremony. As they waited, “All You Need Is Love” played over the loudspeaker. The crowd joined in, turning the Olympic Stadium into a sing-along. It felt like a national party. The public address announcer told the crowd that the ceremony was going to be delayed. “I’m sure you’ll be ready to stay until it gets light at 7 AM,” he said. He was right.

In the stadium corridors, Louisa Fernandez, who works in marketing at British Airways, and Keith Perry, a business executive for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, debated where this night ranked in the annals of U.K. sports history. They settled on second, behind the 1966 World Cup. “In sports, we’re very good at failing at the last minute,” says Perry, 52. “It was incredible to see us power through it.” The timing of the wins — three quick ones in a row — amazed Fernandez. “Everything just fell into place,” says Fernandez. “And that never happens for Britain.”

They, too, were headed for the pubs.

(MORE: Olympic Highlights In Photographs)