James Lawton: When Britain fell in love with the Olympics

It was the weekend when Britain did more than count medals made of gold and silver and bronze and weigh the courage and the dedication of so many of its sportsmen and women unused to the kind of attention routinely paid to millionaire footballers.

It was the weekend when Britain fell in love with the Olympics, saw their point and their rewards, when it was as though the spirit they can inspire had entered the bloodstream of the nation, all in one exultant rush.

This surely is the stunning achievement of a heroine like 19-year-old Rebecca Adlington of Mansfield, who won two gold medals – the first such success of a British woman in the length of her lifetime – and then speculated hopefully that an increase in her £12,000-a-year elite athlete allowance might allow her to buy crucial equipment, such as goggles, without stretching her budget to the seams.

Or of 30-year-old Mark Hunter, a gold medal winner in rowing who qualified as a Thames lighterman while pursuing over 10 years a sporting dream some of his friends said was impractical. Hunter fulfilled his ambition yesterday in a sport normally reserved for public schoolboys and when he was asked about his working life on the Isle of Dogs he laughed and said: "That's all in the past mate, I'm an Olympic champion now."

But first he had retched from the sheer depth of the effort required from him and his partner, Zac Purchase, in holding off a ferocious challenge from a Greek team over the last few metres, which had explored every inch of his resolve. "I saw the Greeks coming," he said, "but I said no, I want this too badly."

Such was the demeanour and self-belief of a British team which not only delivered on the promise of a golden weekend but also appeared to have created a huge mood swing in the way the London Olympics of 2012 are being seen in the capital and across the country.

Mired in controversy and spiralling costs, questioned by some as no more than political opportunism unsupported by a genuine concern for the welfare of the country's youth and the provision of proper sports facilities, suddenly the Olympics appear something more than a financial burden and a potential organisational nightmare.

Suddenly, they have to be right. They have to be worthy of a nation's athletes who here this weekend have been performing with a resolution previously unmatched since the modestly rewarded footballers of England won the World Cup in 1966 and, according to some judges of the nation's morale, had created the greatest demonstration of national joy than at any time since the night of Victory in Europe in 1945.

As the British medals came tumbling in and provided not only the heady spectacle of a place above such traditionally superior European rivals as Italy and France and the brilliant sports nation Australia but a third ranking below the might of China and the United States, sport as a vital factor in a nation's level of self-belief had rarely been so dramatically underlined. The reservation about the awarding of the Games to London was always that it was a triumph of politics and salesmanship rather than some natural consequence of an understanding of the value of sport to the life and the potential of young people.

Here in Beijing, and in the waters off Shanghai where Ben Ainslie, who first displayed his genius for sailing as teenager at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, won his third straight gold and the yachtswomen Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson gathered in another, that value has been declared quite relentlessly.

Rebecca Adlington expressed it eloquently, and with a wonderful freshness, when she said that not only was she thrilled to win her gold medals but also to be able to tell herself that all the years of effort had been so beautifully rewarded – and how terrible, and wasteful, it would have been if she had ever submitted to the depression of the bad days which will always come in an effort which stretches over the years.

"Now," she says, "I can tell everybody that it is worth it, all the pain and the hardship and worrying if you are as good as you think you are." This weekend you could dip into any corner of the British Olympic effort and find such conviction.

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of determination to succeed to the very peak of sports success came from another of yesterday's gold medallists, cycling pursuit champion Rebecca Romero. Four years ago she won silver with the quad sculls rowing team, which yesterday came within metres of holding off the challenge from a fiercely drilled Chinese team. Romero decided that she needed a sport where she could guarantee the ultimate prize. When it came yesterday she let out a great roar of triumph, and prompted a coach to say: "Some people don't want to win gold, they need to ... it seems that we have a lot of those at these Olympics." Later, after racing around the track with the Union Flag aloft, Romero fended off questions that she intends to move into another sport for the London Olympics.

Hunter, the lighterman who wanted to succeed so far beyond the Thames, gave another insight into the force which has run so strongly through the British effort. With his gold medal hanging from his neck, he explained: "You can work for 10 years, you can have terrible days, but you always are carried on by the idea that one day you will be a winner, and that it will all be worthwhile. Now I can tell you something else. One thing you can never imagine is how great it feels to win ... I thought I knew precisely how it would feel. But I didn't. I only found out when I had given everything I had and realised that it was enough."

Maybe it is that Mark Hunter and his team-mates have not only won gold but also passed on the secret of what the Olympics mean.

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