Five-Ring Circus

“Toto, I Think We’re Not in Great Britain Anymore”: Can Brits Adjust to a World Filled with Gold?

Mo Farah
Mo Farah of Great Britain celebrates winning gold in the men’s 10,000 meters.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images.

On Saturday afternoon, while waiting out a flight delay in a Canadian airport, I understood how the people who heard the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 must’ve felt. The news reports out of London seemed authentic enough, but the claims they were making beggared belief. Had the British media been overtaken by North Korean propagandists? Were residents of the land of my birth experiencing a vast national delusion?

How else to explain the claims that Team GB had snagged three Olympic gold medals in the course of an hour … and in the marquee track and field events taking place in the Olympic Stadium? It’s one thing to haul in gold from cycling or rowing, as Great Britain has done so impressively—domination in the velodrome; nine medals in the rowing regatta, nearly twice as many as its nearest rival—but in disciplines that more than a few countries took seriously? It seemed unlikely.

And yet it was true. England’s sweetheart, Jessica Ennis, whose face beams out from so many bus shelters and billboards that a visitor from a totalitarian state might think she were Britain’s president for life, triumphed in the heptathlon. Greg Rutherford, who looks like a cross between a ginger Tintin and Neil Patrick Harris, won the long jump competition. And then Mo Farah, born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and raised in West London, took the 10,000 meters in rousing style, breaking his opponents with a sprint down the final straight.

My Twitter feed was suddenly full of Londoners wondering if they had stepped through a looking glass—or been picked up by a tornado. “Toto, I think we’re not in Great Britain anymore,” one Brit tweeted. Britons aren’t used to sustained sporting triumph, much less winning six gold medals in the course of one day.

On Sunday morning, the tabloids were filled cover to cover with self-congratulation rather than the usual self-flagellation. And then something even more remarkable happened: A British man triumphed at the All-England Club, when Andy Murray avenged his July 8 loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon finals. This time, the Scotsman beat the Swiss in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. People wondered: Is it possible that Henman Hill and Murray Mound would no longer be scenes of despair if the club relaxed its rules requiring all-white clothing?* Dress him in red-white-and-blue, and even a Brit can win a tournament in London SW19.

In theory, all this success shouldn’t have seemed so unexpected. Jumping competitions seem almost random these days; as Josh Levin points out, “Rutherford’s effort was the shortest gold-medal-winning leap in 40 years.” Farah and Ennis came into their events as favorites, and Britain has a long tradition of multi-sport achievement. Mary Peters, Daley Thompson, and Denise Lewis won Olympic gold in the pentathlon, decathlon, and heptathlon, respectively. It’s the perfect sporting challenge for a nation that is very good at a lot of things, but the best at very few.

Yes, the crowd should have lifted these athletes, but home-town support has often been an achievement-killer for British athletes. (If you don’t believe me, take a quick squint at the Wimbledon roll of champions. We’ll see if Murray’s Olympic win will spur him to break the post-1936 British streak of futility in the championships.) This time, things are different. Through the close of sporting business on Friday, Great Britain had seen a 175 percent host-nation bounce compared with its performance in Beijing. Yesterday, the added funding that the cash-strapped nation has pumped into sports like cycling and rowing paid off big-time. The athletes in blue, white, and just a little bit of red stood up to the pressure and triumphed. It was the dawning of a new era of confidence and achievement.

But Britain is also a nation steeped in tradition, and one tiresome custom endured Saturday evening when the British soccer team was eliminated by South Korea. As one emotional Briton tweeted shortly afterward, “Yeah we might win 6 gold medals in a day … but like f**k are we going to win on penalties.”

*Correction, Aug. 5: This article originally referred to “Murray Meadow” at the All-England Club. The spectator area is known as “Murray Mound.”