Britain still waiting for its golden moment

Great expectations were raised around Britain's medal run in these Olympics. But while there have been triumphs, like an unexpected bronze in men's gymnastics, it hasn't been the best of times early on.
Britain's Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield (right) took fourth place in the men's synchronized 10m platform final. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

For the hyper-critical British press and sports fan, the first days of the Olympics have not gone exactly as planned. There have been empty seats in stadiums and, for the home team, keen disappointments on the field in the early going.

It helps that the British press is still wildly supportive of its athletes. One headline today read, "No gold but plenty to cheer."

To say these first three days have been something of a roller-coaster ride for the Brits would be something of an understatement.

There was more disappointment early today when their British men’s synchronized diving team, a strong medal hopeful, took an early lead in competition but ended up in fourth place.

A few hours later, however, the men's gymastic team came from almost nowhere to take bronze — ending an historic drought in the team aspect of the sport that has lasted an entire century. (Britain's Louis Smith won bronze in the pommel event at the Beijing Olympics four years ago.)

The gymastics medal appeared to unleash a rare, almost un-British outpouring of emotion, both in the gym and among the initial media reports, especially when it seemed that the British team had initially won the silver, only to be knocked back to bronze on an appeal.

British gymnast Louis Smith reacts as the men's artistic gynastic team gets bumped down to bronze, following a review initiated by the Japanese team. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

Britain set high goals for itself going into these Games. British athletes won 47 medals at the Beijing Games in 2008, finishing fourth overall, and they hoped to do better than that on home soil.

But Britain, like Canada in Olympics past, had been coming to terms with a slower than expected start, putting enormous pressure on organizers and the athletes themselves.

This is a country that — no matter how much it may have complained about the disruptions and inconvenience of holding the Games — badly wants them to succeed.

That was why Prime Minister David Cameron and Opposition Labour Leader Ed Milliband both showed up at the men’s bike race on Saturday hoping to be there when a British athlete claimed victory.

Alas, it was not to be. The Britain’s men’s cyclists — gold medal hopefuls — were shut out of contention in their 250-kilometre race.

So far, few of the early fears about these Games have amounted to much. But that fact has not lowered the temperature on the great-expectations meter.

Even the irrepressible Mayor Boris Johnson piped up on the weekend that British athletes "need to step up the medal count a bit."

London, as it turns out, has proven quite ready to handle the big crowds. Today was the first real test for the city's roadways as the games carried on during a busy work day. There were traffic jams coming into the city on the morning commute. But London's transit authority said trains and subways were handling the extra strain.  

The biggest "scandal" has been the row upon row of unused seats that people have seen on television — after being told events were sold out. 

Organizers have blamed the "Olympic family" — athletes, officials, sports federation members and, yes, the media — for not turning up at some events.

Prime Minister David Cameron attended the men's cycling road race on Saturday but the British gold medal hopefuls were shut out. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

And they have solved the problem, as they did with the security shortages, by calling in the army. Soldiers have been asked to fill unused seats in some venues and fill in any embarrassing gaps.

Of course, once Team GB, as it is called here, starts winning more gold, all will likely be forgiven.

What everyone wants more than anything is to see a British athlete stand on the Olympic podium with a gold medal around his or her neck. The head of Britain’s Olympic Committee says he learned in Canada, at the Vancouver Games in 2010, that that first big win can inspire the home team and bring many more medals, and British fans seem to agree.

"It’s been a good start," says Malcolm Hughes, who came out in driving rain to watch the women’s cycling race in which Britain placed second. "There’s still going to be pressure to get gold medals because they’ve set themselves high targets. But I think they’ll come through in the end."

It could happen. British athletes have put in some valiant performances in the first few days of these Games. But gold has proven tantalizingly difficult to achieve.

Swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who won gold for Britain in the 400-metre freestyle in Beijing, had to settle for a bronze medal at the new Olympic Aquatics Centre Sunday night.

After the race, she talked about the pressure she felt to deliver another gold.

"Everyone else put that pressure on me," she said. "I didn’t put that pressure on myself."

There is no dishonour in winning bronze. Just ask the Canadian synchronized divers who took home this country’s first medal of these Games at the same facility earlier.

There’s no shame in silver either. British cyclist Elizabeth Armitstead came close to winning gold in the women’s 140-kilometre road race on Sunday, but came up just short.

Britain's Rebecca Adlington reacts after winning bronze in the women's 400-metre freestyle swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park on Sunday. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

A tough, tenacious rider, she battled through torrential rain but lost by a nose to a Dutch cyclist.

Her silver medal was Britain’s first of the Games, but came on the heels of other disappointments. 

Marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, who had been hampered by injury throughout her Olympic career, announced she would not run in London because of a foot problem. Then the Britain’s men’s cyclists  were shut out on Saturday.

Still, those fans in attendance are clearly caught up in the excitement. Adlington received thunderous applause from the mostly hometown audience, the crowd jumping to its feet and cheering wildly as she neared the finish.

After a night in which two world records were broken by American and Hungarian swimmers, supporters of Team GB weren’t about to look down on one of their own.

The fans at Olympic Park, many draped in British flags, with Union Jacks painted on their faces, praised Adlington’s perseverance and predicted many more medals for Team GB.

There was some doubt the team could do better than it did in Beijing. But there was agreement the team needs one thing above all — to start winning gold.

The head of Britain’s Olympic Committee, Lord Colin Moynihan, says the first gold medal for the home team will build confidence and lead to many more. As for the  pressure of trying to win in front of family, friends and fellow citizens, he says Britain’s athletes have trained for that all their lives.

Britons want and expect their athletes to triumph. But they can probably be forgiven if they're just a tiny bit anxious.

Britain has a lot on its plate these days. A stubborn recession, stinging austerity measures, a financial crisis in Europe that drags on like a bad cold.

The Games have given Britain something to cheer about. But now they want more, and the medals to show for it.