Tuesday 19 August 2008

Day 11: Eruptions of nationalistic fervour

Today, Team GB became the most successful Olympic team from our immeasureably hip island in exactly 100 years. In 1908, at the Games of the 4th Olympiad in London, Britain won 56 gold medals, a target which is likely to elude even us this time round. However, at that Olympiad, there were a mere 22 competing nations, and the sports included Pipe Smoking, Chastising Domestic Servants, Wife Beating and Racism, none of which we could ever lose. In Beijing, Team GB have 203 other competitors, whilst Bear Bating and Gossip have been replaced by Athletics and Cycling.

Never fear, though. In those intervening 100 years, we have slowly but surely caught up with the rest at these high-fallutin' new disciplines. Now it is starting to look like we might even be able to make a fight of keeping our outrageous 3rd place in the overall medals table. At the Atlanta games in 1996, the British team blustered and flumped its way to a measly one gold medal with a combination of under-performing athletes and people who were just too old, too young or too rubbish. Twelve years on, it feels like a lot longer ago. A huge amount of the credit has to go to UK Athletics and the Lottery funding, a prime example to point out when it is - as it will be - needed that Britain can organise a piss-up in a brewery when the mood so takes it. We are a very small country, especially in terms of geographical area, so what we have managed to achieve is probably the outstanding story of the whole Beijing Olympics, along with Michael Phelps and the West Indian teams' insane production line of world class sprinters.

Our key victories today yet again came in the Velodrome. Our cycling team are now statistically the single greatest ever in the history of a single Olympic Games. Indeed, our dominance became such that the BBC's cycling commentator Hugh Porter started to display signs of a blasé confidence, thought to have been extinct in British sports broadcasting. It was not, however, ill-placed. Thankfully not, indeed, as the two gold medalists in question today were perhaps the most deserving of the lot. Both Chris Hoy (Men's 1 km) and Victoria Pendleton (Women's Keirin) had some or all of their favourite events removed from the Track Cycling schedule for Beijing's games. Hoy's medal in the Sprint was his third at this summer's Games, again a return for a British athlete not seen since the heady days of 1908. Meanwhile, Victoria Pendleton, the world's greatest female sprint cyclist, finally managed to add Olympic gold to her growing pile of other clanking bling. Pendleton had seen all but one of her events pared out of the schedule to make room for BMX, Topless Bingo and Monkey Bartering, so winning in the sprint was her only chance at the medal she missed out on in Athens. Despite this pressure, and the weight of the growing expectation on the team, I've never seen a gold medal look quite so certain from first to last. Nobody else stood a chance.

As if to rub the world's noses in it further, we even bagged two medals in the Bird's Nest stadium, including a gold for Christine Ohuruogu in the women's 400 metres. She paced herself perfectly to sweep past her wheezing rivals in the last 10 metres, thus becoming the highest profile Ohuruogu since the first series of Star Trek.

A word, though, for our rivals who have all fought so poorly and capitulated so readily. Ah, no, sod it. They'll all be beating us again soon enough. Eat our dust!

Today's sport

I joined an audience of 660,000 European football scouts in watching the first semi-final in the Men's Football. Nigeria gave Belgium a good hard licking, emerging as 4-1 victors to face Argentina in the final. The Olympic football being an under-23 contest, almost anyone who can tie their own shoelaces or walk and walk at the same time will soon be gracing one of the top European football leagues. On this evidence, this is unlikely to include any of the Belgian team, who now face Brazil for the bronze. However, a lot of the players on display here are already names familiar to European football supporters - a tribute to the ever-tighter tentacles of the top clubs' scouting networks - so what this match really taught me is just how good African football teams can be when they're just left to play football.

I also enjoyed the Women's 100m Hurdles final. The favourite, the USA's Lolo Jones, led up to the penultimate barrier before she clipped it with her lead leg and stumbled, allowing her teammate Dawn Harper through to take the gold. And, indeed, everyone else. A distraught Williams bungled through the tape 7th out of 8th, beating only the British competitor, Sarah Claxton, to the line. It was a faintly reassuring reminder of times past.

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