Beijing Unstiffens Brits' Upper Lips

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Stu Forster / Getty

Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain celebrates winning the Women's 400m Final and the gold medal.

It's enough to make even weather-obsessed Brits forget the dismal summer. They've stopped talking, too, about the housing crisis. Even the start of another soccer season has come and gone unnoticed. Instead, the plucky people of Britain, traditional home to fair play and the fourth-placed finish, have only one thing on their minds: Gold. Golds for cycling, golds for rowing, golds for sailing, and — quashing the myth that Brits can only win while sitting down — even golds for running. For Britain, beamed an editorial in The Independent on Wednesday, the Beijing games "have offered more than mere diversion from a dismal summer of grey skies and economic gloom."

Britain is awash with precious metal. By the time Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson had grabbed the country's fourth sailing gold of the games on Aug. 21, British athletes — track star Christine Ohuruogu, the only member of the team to win standing up, among them — had bagged 39 medals, including 17 golds — Britain's best haul in a century. Only the far larger countries of China, with 46 gold medals, and the U.S., with 28, have done better in Beijing.

British Olympians scoffed, as it turned out, at the sheer modesty of the 35-medal target set out by UK Sport, the body that distributes government cash to athletes. And they laughed in the face of UK Sport's hope for an eight-placed finish in the 2008 medal table. In short, their ambitions proved most un-British-like. "The performance of 'Team GB' in the Olympics is moving beyond the sublime and towards the ridiculous," said an editorial in Britain's Daily Telegraph. "We are British, for heaven's sake — how are we supposed to cope with such a relentless diet of good news, such an unprecedented glut of world-beating performances?"

Thankfully, Britain's friends overseas have been only too happy to offer a sense of perspective. French officials have apparently suggested the dominance of Britain's cycling team in Beijing may be down more to performance-enhancing drugs than our bulldog spirit. (If it'd raced as a separate nation, the cycle team would currently be ninth in the medal table.) And John Coates, head of the Australian Olympic Committee, was even gracious enough to applaud a British gold in the pool as "not bad for a country that has no swimming pools and very little soap."

Soon enough, Britain will get back to its longing for higher house prices, less rain — and more soap, along with the sobering realization that it's got to do it all again in 2012. British Olympic officials had earlier targeted fourth place in the medals table when the games are held in London in four years time. Now, particularly in view of a promised increase to athletes' funding — already greatly improved over the past decade, and a key factor in British success in Beijing — the country is bound to expect an even higher finish at home in 2012. You can bet your house on that —if it's worth anything by then.