Four years ago on a rainy morning outside Beijing, Nicole Cooke emerged suddenly from the Chinese gloom to claim Britain's first medal of the 2008 Olympics. It was day one of the Games and it set the tone.
Beijing was the most successful Olympic Games Britain had enjoyed for a century. It was a success as unexpected as it was welcome but four years on it has helped create an expectation greater than any British team – and the British Olympic Association likes to stress this is one team – has experienced.
More money has been invested in more men and more women across more sports – to borrow from the BOA's mantra – and in return never has so much been expected of so many, to borrow from another great Britain on what, after all, is a weekend coloured red, white and blue. Yesterday afternoon, as the sense of occasion grew around the Olympic Park, Cooke sent a tweet: "We owe * gold."
The BOA has been noticeably looking to rein in expectation as the long days have become short hours. That deliberately vague mantra of "more medals from more sports" than Beijing is trotted out with the ingrained weariness of an election slogan. The target set by UK Sport is 48 medals; only one more than Beijing.
The worry around those that govern Britain's Olympic sports is that the bar was set so high four years ago it will be next to impossible to leap over in London. Typically host-nations-to-be enjoy a rise in the medal table ahead of their Games, but none has enjoyed such an out-of-proportion spike as Britain did four years ago.
There is reason to expect better though. There is the sheer size of the team – 541 athletes, bigger than any British team apart from that of the 1908 London Games. There is the known unknown of home advantage – some medals will be won unexpectedly because of this being a London Games. And there is the simple fact that a significant number of sports have assembled their strongest ever Olympic teams. In three of the big five – rowing, sailing and swimming – Britain have never been better.
Cycling, as a result of changes in the schedule, will not deliver as many medals as Beijing but will still provide ample opportunities to hear the national anthem drone around the Velodrome. In triathlon, via the Brownlee brothers and Helen Jenkins, boxing and canoeing, Britain has also assembled a plethora of genuine medal prospects. Neither UK Sport, the body that funds elite sport, nor the BOA will offer a golden target. Here is one: 23-25 gold medals is a realistic aim for Britain. Achieve that and third place in the medals table will follow.
To reach that, a level Britain has only climbed to once in Olympic history (the distorting 1908 Games again when 56 golds were won), impetus will be all. Team GB needs a Cooke mark-2012. It needs Mark Cavendish to come hurtling down The Mall this afternoon and win gold. It's a simple formula, everybody knows it.
"This is one of the crucial competitions," said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, yesterday. Rogge, a Belgian, confessed to split loyalties. His compatriot Tom Boonen is one of those who could ruin Britain's golden start but Rogge knows the importance of Cavendish crossing the line first.
"The entire British population is waiting for Cavendish to win the elusive gold. An early gold medal for the host country is of great importance to lift the mood and the atmosphere."
Riding behind Cavendish as part of the team will be David Millar, the Scot who was banned for doping but is now free to compete after the BOA's controversial bylaw, barring those who have tested positive from competing at the Olympics, was lifted. Millar has caught the mood music. "I feel like I'm part of something special," he said. "It's the perfect storm, with Wiggo winning the Tour, Cav being Cav and us being here right now." Cavendish, meanwhile, has acquired a new fan since the schedule for the Games was announced. "Go Mark!" said Hannah Miley as she discussed the pressure that comes with walking out on day one of a British Olympics as a leading medal hope. She followed that with a big grin.
Miley goes for gold tonight in the 400m individual medley, her final scheduled for 8.09pm, a piece of precision appropriate in a sport where the margins between success and failure have become ever finer. "I'd rather have that than being the very first event," said the 22-year-old, who will be competing in her second Games.
On Thursday, Ian Thorpe arrived in London, his involvement restricted to a watching brief rather than wearing his swimming briefs, and dismissed GB's swimmers as underdogs. That is not the feeling bubbling in the team. "The hay is in the barn," is how Dennis Pursley, Britain's head coach, puts it. Privately there is optimism around Britain's coaching staff – not a group given to hyperbole – that this will be a rewarding Games in the pool, whether the Australians like it or not.
"Getting a home games has encouraged and inspired us all," said Rebecca Adlington, who will take up the mantle tomorrow night should Cavendish and Miley fail to win gold today. "It has pushed the sport."
Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead are Britain's other major hopes of gold over the first weekend of competition, but across the schedule that launches sport after sport into action over the next two days it is possible to pick out a succession of Britons who have every chance of making the podium in due course: Andy Murray, boxer Luke Campbell, the eventing team, Louis Smith, Beth Tweddle and the gymnastic teams. And then there is Ben Ainslie. Tomorrow he begins his quest for a fourth gold medal in Weymouth and he will not be the only sailor to win gold.
The rowing heats begin at Eton Dorney this morning. David Tanner, the sport's performance director, had no hesitation in describing the 46 men and women who will crew Britain's boats as the country's best ever.
The BOA, and UK Sport, have gone to impressive lengths to ensure their athletes are best prepared for what are unquestionably the days of their lives. This is a sporting generation blessed by the opportunity to compete in a home Olympics and now they have the opportunity to become a genuine golden generation. It is an immense expectation. Some will relish it.
"Pressure isn't a bad thing," said diver Tom Daley yesterday. "When you are under pressure, in theory it should bring out the best of you because you've got that extra adrenaline rush." Now for the gold rush.
A nation expects: Britons in action this weekend
Cycling Men's Road Race, 3.30pm finish. The eyes of Britain will be fixed on Mark Cavendish as his "dream team" of the Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard attempt to get the Manx Missile in perfect position to power away in a spectacular sprint finish down The Mall to claim GB's first gold of the Games. Fingers crossed.
Judo Men's 60kg, 4.10pm.
Ashley McKenzie has an outside chance of a medal. If he shines in the early rounds this morning, he will battle for bronze or better.
Swimming 400m individual medley, 8.09pm. The focus switches to the Aquatics Centre as Hannah Miley tries to get the better of Elizabeth Beisel, the American favourite. There will barely be a dry eye in the house if Miley touches the wall first and then goes to hug her father and coach, Patrick.
Swimming Women's 4x100m freestyle, 8.40pm. A small chance of a medal, as flexible Fran Halsall leads the team.
Cycling Women's road race, 3.30pm finish. Twenty-four hours after Cavendish has, hopefully, given GB a flying start, Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead could make it a golden double. Whereas Cav is the undisputed team leader, Cooke or Armitstead could go for gold depending on how the race unfolds.
Swimming Women's 100m fly final, 7.30pm. Half-decent chance of a medal as Ellen Gandy and Fran Halsall pull out all the stops to reach the podium.
Swimming Women's 400m freestyle, 8pm. Rebecca Adlington has the chance to round off the weekend in style as she attempts to defend her crown from Beijing. But don't expect it to be easy…
...and Great Britain's previous first gold medals
Adrian Moorhouse, day two.
Chris Boardman, day three.
Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, day eight.
Jason Queally, day one.
Leslie Law, day five.
Nicole Cook, day two.Reuse content