A great day for Britain, if not quite yet for Team GB

Thousands thronged the streets for the first day's events, and the lack of a cycling gold did little to dampen spirits

Visitors from around the world joined Britons in the capital yesterday for a day of sport and a show of national pride at the proper start of London's Olympic Games.

After seven years of planning and preparation, doubt and controversy, it was finally time for the real Games to begin. This was no longer about the politicians, the spin or the pre-emptive moaning. It was about one thing: the sport.

The question boomed out of the public-address across The Mall yesterday, ahead of the most awaited event of Games' opening day. "London!" it screeched, "Are you ready?" The reply from the crowd – and from the city – was a loud and unequivocal "yes".

In the end, it was the men whose shoulders had borne the weight of a nation's expectations that turned out to be unprepared. Though there were eight gold medals to be grabbed yesterday, it was the cycling road race that had been the frenzied focus of Britain's medal expectations.

Gold medal favourite and current world champion Mark Cavendish had described his five-man squad of Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard as the "dream team", but yesterday their dreams of taking home the first gold of the Games were in tatters. "Cav" was dignified in defeat and tweeted praise for his teammates: "4 heroes in @bradwiggins, @millarmind, @chrisfroome &@IStannard. Rode, with the weight of a nation, until exhaustion. So proud."

Strong British swimming medal hope Hannah Miley added to the disappointment of Cavendish's failed mission, missing out on a podium place last night. The swimmer from Inverurie in Scotland is the European champion in the 400 metres individual medley but was crowded out by rivals from China and the United States in what turned into world- record-beating race.

Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen burst through in the final stretch to become the unfancied winner with a new best time at 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Miley, 22, had said beforehand that she was hoping Cavendish would win gold in the first day of cycling race to take the pressure off her race.

"I'm gutted that I didn't get a medal," she said. "I couldn't have given it any more. Apologies if anyone had high expectations of me. I gave it everything I had. I gave everything I had. It really was about who could recover the quickest from the morning [heats]. But it's one better than I got in Beijing."

She was not the only one to be disappointed. American swimming star Michael Phelps, who had hoped to add to his tally of 14 Olympic gold medals, was crushed in the 400m individual medley by fellow countryman and rival Ryan Lochte and failed even to make the first three.

China's Yi Siling became the first gold medallist of the Games when she won the 10m air rifle shooting. On a good opening day for Asia, South Korea's Jin Jong-oh won the men's 10m air pistol shooting.

From badminton to boxing and equestrian eventing to weightlifting, the first proper day of the Games went ahead without hitch.

The capital was transformed as its venues cranked into gear. From the beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade to archery at Lord's and rowing at Eton Downey, the backdrop was as quintessentially British as Danny Boyle's opening ceremony, and delivered with the same panache. Betty Rogers, 49, and her niece Becky, 21, from Chicago, were at the finish line to see the end of the cycling. "It's amazing to be able to watch the cycling at Buckingham Palace in the year of the Diamond Jubilee," said Betty.

Adam Hilliard, 26, a design engineer from Bristol, was on his way to watch Britain's men play Brazil in the indoor volleyball at Horse Guards Parade. He summed up a shift in attitude that has been building ever since last year's Royal Wedding and the Queen's Jubilee earlier this year – and which climaxed at Friday night's opening ceremony. "Previously, doing the flag-waving thing felt a bit BNP but this summer that's all changed. Now everyone is proud to do it."

There were also early signs of the lasting impact that the Games would have on Britain's next generation of athletes and sports enthusiasts. Janet Lumley, 46, had brought her children James, seven, and Alexandra, nine, from Bexleyheath in south-east London to watch the start of the road race from Green Park. For the past fortnight they have been riding their bikes around the garden, imagining they are the next Wiggo or Pendleton. Alexandra said: "Watching them race here makes me feel happy; it makes me want to do it too."

In the morning at Lord's the British also crashed out of the archery against Ukraine, but GB's performance did not deter visitors' admiration for the show put on at the home of cricket. Australians Eliza and Tony Brown brought their children Nicholas, six, and John, eight, over from Canberra to see the Games and were glued to the archery at Lord's all morning. "It's been a wonderful day. It's a beautiful city and a great event for it. We wouldn't have brought the kids halfway across the world if we didn't think it was going to be great."

But for some, the real test of the Games is yet to come. Tarome Hemmings, a 19-year-old student from Hackney, was given a last-minute free ticket to Friday night's opening ceremony. "It feels like you're part of history to be here," he said, as he left the stadium in the early hours yesterday. But he had a warning for anyone too caught up in the euphoria. "The Games could be a great thing for London. But we need to make sure that the legacy is more than just talk."

Over the next two weeks, more than 10,000 athletes from 204 countries will compete in 26 sports and this looked like a flying start.

"Very proud but in a modest way," was Danny Boyle's assessment of Friday night's opening ceremony. The same could be said for the first day of the Games proper. It may not have been the best day for Team GB. But it was a great day for Britain.

Who to look out for today on Team GB

Despite disappointment yesterday in the cycling road race, Team GB has several chances to get gold today.

Rebecca Adlington

Our best hope is the swimmer who will defend her 400m freestyle title this evening. But the 23-year-old faces strong competition from world record holder Camille Muffat, and world champion Federica Pellegrini.

Lizzie Armitstead

The cyclist will be the supported rider going for glory if she is in the front group in the final stages of the road race, which starts at noon.

Alison Williamson, Amy Oliver & Naomi Folkard

The women's archery medals will be decided today, but don't expect miracles. A disappointing ranking round on Friday left our female archers placed 11th from 12.

Becky Gallantree & Alicia Blagg

These two will open Britain's diving bid in the women's three-metre synchronised diving this afternoon. But the pair are an outside medal hope.

James Honeybone

Britain's only representative in the men's sabre thinks "anything is possible". But the 21-year-old from Truro is ranked 93rd in the world.

Colin Oates

In the men's under-66kg judo class, the 29-year-old from Norfolk who finished fifth at the 2011 World Championships will be fighting for a medal.

Georgina Geikie

A part-time barmaid from Devon, she will be shooting for a medal spot in the 10m air pistol at the Royal Artillery Barracks. The 27-year-old came 81st in the World Cup this year.

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