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Much pride as British pile up Olympic medals

LONDON — For a few heady moments on Sunday afternoon, the lively Castle pub in London's Islington section went nearly silent in anticipation.

On television, Britain's Andy Murray was points away from a resounding victory in the men's tennis gold medal match. On his smartphone, stockbroker James Hathaway pulled up video of British gymnast Louis Smith trying to clinch gold on the pommel horse.

"How bloody exciting is this," said Hathaway, 32.

While Murray sealed his gold, Smith settled for a narrow silver and his teammate Max Whitlock won bronze — among eight medals overall for Great Britain on Sunday as it capped off perhaps the greatest sports weekend in the country's history.

One night earlier, in the span of less than one hour, the host nation had won three Olympic gold medals in track and field, on the heels of three golds clinched earlier in the day. As the medal haul continued Sunday, Britain firmly established itself in third place behind China and the United States, two nations several times its size.

After pre-Olympic concerns that London was unprepared to play host, and then a shaky start by athletes during the first week of the games, the British find themselves in an unfamiliar position on the world sporting stage: They're winning.

Medals are tumbling in so fast that rival nations are starting to chafe with resentment as the home team seems poised to improve on its fourth-place finish at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Britain has sent more than 200 additional athletes to these games, and as of Sunday night it had collected 37 medals, including 16 gold. The total in Beijing was 47.

It was just last Tuesday that London's mayor, Boris Johnson, joked that Britain was "showing great natural restraint and politeness as host nation in not hoarding the medals more so far." But the hosts are enjoying a dramatic surge as the scene has shifted to events where the British have tended to do better, such as cycling, rowing and sailing.

"We are good at sports where we're sitting down," Hathaway explained.

On a Saturday that one newspaper dubbed "Britain's greatest day," Team GB grabbed a remarkable six medals — in sitting-down events, yes, but also on the track inside the Olympic Stadium. In front of a screaming home crowd and many more crowding around TVs in living rooms and pubs across the country, the games' British poster girl, Jessica Ennis, took the women's heptathlon; Greg Rutherford was a surprising winner in the men's long jump; and Mo Farah, the inspirational Somali-born runner, outclassed the field in the men's 10,000 meters.

"I think it probably was the best sporting night I've ever seen," said Hugh Sweeney, 55, of Airdrie in Scotland, who came down to London with his daughter to attend Olympic events.

"And," he added, "we're beating the French."

Britain's rival France is in fifth place, behind South Korea, after a disappointing first week that has sparked growing Gallic frustration. After Britain captured four gold medals in indoor cycling — breaking records on a fast track inside the new saddle-shaped velodrome dubbed "the Pringle" — the director of the French cycling team speculated that the British team was using "magic wheels."

"We are looking a lot at the equipment they use," Isabelle Gautheron told the French newspaper L'Equipe. "We are asking a lot of questions: How have they gained so many tenths of seconds?"

French attitudes weren't helped after British track cyclist Philip Hindes said that he deliberately crashed his bike in qualifying on Thursday to ensure a restart. Then on Saturday two British rowers, Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase, were granted a restart after their seat came loose, even though that's not considered an equipment failure. French fans took to Twitter, predictably, to mock what they called British "cheating."

Much pride as British pile up Olympic medals 08/05/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 6, 2012 12:10am]
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