Britain Sets Best Olympic Gold Total for Century

By Graham Dunbar 8 August 2012

LONDON—Riding a wave of passionate home support, buoyant Britain is winning Olympic medals at a rate not seen for 104 years.

The surging British team raised its totals to 22 golds, and 48 medals overall, on Tuesday and now trails only superpowers China and the United States in the medal table.

Not since the 1908 London Olympics has Britain won Summer Games medals faster, risen higher and seemed stronger. And back then, only 22 nations showed up, instead of 204 today.

On another special day for the home team, cyclists Chris Hoy and Laura Trott, triathlete Alistair Brownlee and the equestrian dressage team lifted the tally above the 19-gold haul at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Four years ago, Britain celebrated 47 medals overall and hailed a sports renaissance for a country accustomed to seeing what Hoy described Tuesday as “plucky losers.”

“I think that’s starting to change,” said Hoy, now Britain’s most successful Olympian with six career gold medals. “You have a group of athletes that have only seen success, and to them, being part of the British team is being part of the winning team.”

Beijing set a tough standard to top, even with the advantage of raucous vocal support on home fields, tracks and roads, lakes, courts and courses.

Expectations have still been surpassed by athletes and London Games organizers, who were boosted by widespread popular acclaim for the opening ceremony.

“We have shown the world the best face of Britain,” Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters in his official Downing Street residence on Tuesday. “Our athletes, both individually and as a team, can be incredibly proud of what they have achieved.”

Track cycling again showed British athletes and fans performing at their peak.

Hoy’s keirin race victory was his second London Olympics success, after being part of the victorious team sprint trio last week. It also hoisted the Scottish rider over rowing great Steve Redgrave who won five golds from 1984-2000. Redgrave, who played a central role in the Olympic cauldron-lighting ceremony two weeks ago, was trackside to share a warm, post-race embrace with his fellow British sporting folk hero.

The 36-year-old Hoy wrote another chapter of British Olympic history. With seven medals of all colors, he tied Bradley Wiggins whose gold in the men’s road time trial last week marked his fourth straight Summer Games with at least one medal.

Trott matched Hoy in adding an individual gold to a team title. The 20-year-old rider won the multi-event omnium three days after helping the women’s pursuit team to victory.

The futuristic Velodrome could be remembered as the defining home-team venue of the London Games. The hot, noisy, 6,000-capacity arena saw Britain take seven of 10 gold medals on offer there.

“Competing at home surely gave us an extra something,” said Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s director of performance. “It was just a matter of winning the first couple of medals to transform the whole thing into a real sports festival.”

Across town in London’s up-market west end, Brownlee swam, cycled and ran to glory over a 54.5 kilometer (34 mile) triathlon course in Hyde Park—and wrapped himself in national colors to celebrate early.

Grabbing a Union flag from a fan, Brownlee slowed to walking pace to acknowledge the home support before crossing the finish line. His brother Jonathan took the bronze medal.

The 2012 London Olympics has become arguably Britain’s best-ever, though the record book shows it once won 56 golds and 156 medals overall. Yet when London hosted for the first time in 1908, medals were easier to earn as Britain supplied one-third of all participating athletes.

With five days of competition left, Britain has already hit targets by the UK Sport funding agency to beat the Beijing numbers.

“Our ‘no compromise’ approach has helped us make the right, if at times tough, investment decisions and focus our support on our best medal prospects over the past (Olympic four-year) cycle,” said Peter Keen, the agency’s special adviser.

Credit has also been directed toward former PM John Major, whose government created the national lottery draw which has largely funded Olympic sports since 1994 in a nation mostly obsessed with football.

The wave of praise and celebratory mood makes it seem a long time since the typically emotive British press was agonizing over a gold-medal shutout in the first four full days of action in London.

“We are where we expected to be at this stage,” British Olympic Association chief executive Andy Hunt had said last Tuesday. “There is no sense at all amongst the team that we are not delivering.”

If British self-confidence seemed unconvincing seven days earlier, it proved well founded on Tuesday.