With Games half over, Brits stir Olympic spirit

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 9:32 PM

With only a few minor glitches that have fallen well short of fears, it's been a jolly good show as the London Games reach the midpoint.

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Britons are known for their reserve, but fans like this one at a basketball game between Australia and Great Britain have happily embraced the Olympic Games.

Photo: Eric Gay, Associated Press

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LONDON - It's not that British athletes were unexcited about competing for Queen and country. It's just that doing so in one's own backyard -- and in the Olympics, no less -- can be rather daunting.

"Utterly terrifying," rower Andrew Triggs Hodge said Saturday, when he was asked about racing in the world's most high-profile sporting event on home turf. In true British style, Triggs Hodge maintained a stiff upper lip and did his utmost, winning a gold medal in the men's four at Eton Dorney. It has been no less a challenge for his countrymen to stage this global five-ring circus for the past nine days, but they are prevailing as well.

The Brits faced skepticism and doubt from within and without in the weeks before the Olympics began on July 27. Their overloaded transport system would crumble, their dreary weather would spoil the mood, their security plan would prove inadequate, their citizens would be indifferent. Those concerns turned out to be overblown during the Games' first week, and the problems they have endured -- empty seats, a slow start by the home team and a badminton scandal, of all things -- have not overshadowed a good show.

The famed British reserve has melted away to reveal endless good cheer, from organizers, volunteers and fans who have overwhelmed athletes with their enthusiasm. Michael Phelps' farewell tour -- and the American tsunami that produced 30 swimming medals, including 16 gold -- rocked the Aquatic Centre. Gymnast Gabby Douglas charmed, runner Oscar Pistorius made history and Team Great Britain roared to life, moving to third in the medals table behind the U.S. and China.

It all began with an Opening Ceremony that some foreigners decried as "too British." A huge hit inside the United Kingdom, the celebration of Britain in all its proud eccentricity shifted the mood of a public that seemed to approach the Games with some of the same trepidation Triggs Hodge felt.

Things were much different Saturday night, when track athletes Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah received their gold medals while thousands sang "God Save The Queen" in Olympic Stadium and in front of televisions all over London.

"I think people talk about the brave heart and the great lion heart of the British public, and I think people have seen that," said Jackie Brock-Doyle, director of communications for the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games. "We talk about the generosity of the spirit of the British, and I think that has really come to the fore over this first week."

The blocks of empty seats at some venues have caused the greatest furor. Despite a perception that Britons were not swept up in the Olympic spirit, their irritation that those tickets are not being made available to the public demonstrates otherwise.

The seating issue is not new. At several recent Olympics, there also were swaths of seats set aside for officials, athletes, media and sponsors that went unoccupied. The Chinese brought busloads of people to fill them, while the London organizing committee has been stepping up efforts to get unsold tickets on the market. It also is offering seats to teachers, students, military personnel and volunteers.

Brock-Doyle said Saturday that more than 150,000 tickets have been resold and that 4.4 million spectators had attended Olympic events through Friday. Many venues are full, and the home team is finding a heartwarming atmosphere.

"There is so much support and goodwill," said Triggs Hodge, part of a rowing team competing before lively crowds of 30,000. "Even in training and as we entered the venue, the crowds would be gathering hours before racing and cheering us on. It really built our confidence and belief."

There have been only a few problems with London's public transport, despite the load. Officials said a record 4.31 million trips were made last Wednesday on the London Underground, 600,000 more than usual. Worries about security also have quieted, with more than 18,000 troops committed to Olympics duty.

Four athletes have been kicked out of the Olympics for positive drug tests, while two others were tossed for making racist remarks on social media and eight for deliberately losing their badminton matches. There have been lighter moments, too.

Rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger, who took up his sport three months ago, is shaping up as the Eddie the Eagle of these Olympics. He finished a minute slower than the rest of the field in the men's single sculls but was cheered wildly. Mayor Boris Johnson -- a garrulous, unrepentant booster of the Games -- was left dangling from a zip line last week while wearing a hard hat and waving two British flags, an image that went viral.

The incident was said to have happened because of a loss of momentum. Given the way things have played out in the first week, it seems unlikely that the Olympics will suffer the same fate.

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