If events of the past few weeks have taught us anything about sport, it is that expectations have become almost as relevant as results.
I stood on the road to Marathon at the 14-kilometre mark as Paula Radcliffe lumbered past; blue lips outlining her already slackened mouth, cheeks pale despite the searing heat. Above the flags all British eyes looked into her face for signs of strength. Most of us expected her to win and all of us expected her to look better at 14km.
Twenty-four hours later, Kelly Holmes lined up for the final of the 800 metres. By evading the issue of which event she would compete in, she had largely diffused expectations. How could we place our bets when we didn't even know if she would be running? The wide-eyed expression that took her over the line said that no one was more shocked by the victory than Holmes herself.
Back in England, Wayne Rooney was affirming our expectations of a Premiership footballer. Like David Beckham before him, Rooney's sordid sexual shenanigans inspire an overwhelming sense of disappointment. The saddest thing about Beckham and Rebecca Loos (apart from the fact that his wife didn't divorce him) is that his infidelity cheated us all. The public image of a devoted family man was a lie. We hoped that Wayne Rooney would be different. At least - we speculated - Rooney was still too young to have got up to any real mischief, and as his star ascended he would surely be protected from potential harm. Wrong again.
After seeing Kelly Holmes win one Olympic gold medal, the nation sat up to take notice of the pretty ex-soldier who had suddenly eclipsed Paula Radcliffe in our fickle affections. Holmes sat at the back of the pack for most of the 1500m, but we still expected her to drive down the final leg and make history. When she fulfilled that desire, all British onlookers felt rewarded. The next day, bookies stopped taking bets on this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Most successful athletes are heard dismissing public expectation, arguing that nobody can put more pressure on them than they place upon themselves. But when shared hopes are high, failure to match them can leave the sportsperson in a highly unenviable position. The number of jokes currently circulating the internet concerning Paula Radcliffe's decision to retire from not only the Marathon but also the 10,000m, testify to such a tide of ill will. Many are ludicrously extreme but reveal how quickly a sporting hero can become a pariah.
But it is not only competitors who face such vicissitudes. Managerial figures have always carried the hopes of a nation on their shoulders, but they are now as likely to be a disappointment off the field as they are on it.
Breaking news that Sven Goran Eriksson had slept with half the women's Olympic sailing team would probably be met with a collective shrug. Eriksson's affair with Ulrika Johnson caused widespread shock (and bemusement) but when the tale of Faria Alam emerged, press attention quickly shifted to the behaviour of the FA. Multiple philanderers have no reputation to protect.
Neither, it seems, have British sports fans. During the second week of the Athens Olympics I visited "Heineken House", a city-centre 24-hour drinking venue that doubled as the Netherlands team headquarters. Producing a Dutch passport guaranteed entry, although anyone who possessed a modicum of Olympic Spirit and an ability to drink cheap beer was welcome.
At midnight, Dutch medal-winners from that day were paraded in front of more than 1,000 people singing "We are the champions" as footage of the event was shown on a large screen. The particularly popular winners "crowd surfed" across the orange-clad "mosh pit". In the Netherlands, the multiple Olympic gold medallist swimmer Peter van den Hoogenband is as famous as any A-list movie star, yet he still felt safe enough to put his life - quite literally - in the hands of 2,000 of his drunken compatriots.
In Heineken House, families with young children mingled with corporate sponsors, and groups of young men engaged in their own Olympic-standard drinking competitions.
In contrast, the British Olympic Association took over a pleasant but sedate primary school in the suburbs. Tea was served beside piles of the day's newspapers, and athletes' families could rest on beanbags while watching the Games on TV. It had a certain charm but lacked the rip-roaring, inspirational fever that emanated with the ceaseless bass from the Dutch camp.
I asked one representative why there was no similar venue for British team celebrations. "The British Embassy advised us against it," she said. "In fact, if any bar appears to be attracting large groups of British fans during the Olympics, we have to stamp it out." I reminded her that low expectations of British football fans should not be confused with the behaviour of sports fans that travel to watch an Olympic Games.
The day after Kelly Holmes's unprecedented second gold, the British press applauded her success but her story was still sidelined by Wayne Rooney and his tally of prostitutes. As it turned out, Rooney did need protecting, except that the biggest danger he faced was from himself - but then again, what did we expect?
Brian Viner is awayReuse content