For a moment, a classic London syndrome beckoned. Everyone had been waiting all this time for a gold medal, and now it seemed that two had come along at once. In the end, however, a thrilling challenge from Britain's men's eight resolved itself into something no less familiar, in the arteries of her sporting life: namely, so ardent a tilt at glory that it ultimately marooned them short of their maximum reach.
The race had begun just moments after the packed galleries sang along to the national anthem, following the presentation of gold medals to Heather Stanning and Helen Glover. And the home crew seemed to heed that distant chorus as a summons to duty, shadowing a lightning break by the German favourites and clawing level by halfway. Soon afterwards Phelan Hill, the cox, shouted to his men: he was level with the German stroke. Their noses were in front, and there was a scent of gold over the water.
The next minute was the most gripping of the regatta so far – a pulsating slugfest between these agonised physical paragons, allies and rivals alike taking each other beyond some uncharted frontier of blazing lactic acid. And, to their enormous credit, the Germans responded with the stuff of champions.
Inch by inch, they retrieved the initiative. A canvas up, now, they instead treated the partisan uproar as a spur to their own national pride. In the end, the scale of the challenge these heroes had stemmed was best measured by the cruel price exacted on its authors. The British were not just broken, but spent, and floundered helplessly in the dying moments as Canada pounced for silver.
So it was that they received their bronze medals in the dejected certainty that they had forfeited silver with their audacious bid for gold. Perhaps, as they bowed their necks, they repented of that gamble – but they will surely console themselves, in time, that abjuring second best for a chance of better vested them with a lustre more lasting than mere silver.
After all, they had reflected ample credit upon their homeland merely by their diverse roots and engaging disposition. The veteran, Greg Searle, was wearing the same lucky socks as when he had won gold in Barcelona 20 years ago; and these were duly older than four of his team-mates. "We said before the race that we wanted to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say we gave it everything," Searle said. "I think we did that. And I had an amazing rush of adrenaline when Phelan said we were in front. But we'd raced hard from the start and, though the crowd was amazing, we didn't have anything left."
Even in the first, raw moments after that glimpse of gold had faded to a meaner mint, the 40-year-old was nonetheless certain the sacrifices he embraced in coming out of retirement had been worthwhile. "My dream didn't come completely true," he said. "But it's been fantastic, the whole time leading up to this."
From 19 to 51: Britain's medals
The age range of all of Great Britain's medallists so far:
19 S Oldham and M Whitlock (gymnastics). 20 C Louloudis (rowing). 21 D Purvis (gymnastics). 23 K Thomas, L Smith (gymnastics), L Armitstead (cycling), R Adlington (swimming), M Sbihi (rowing), M Jamieson (swimming) 25 J Foad (rowing). 26 H Glover (rowing), T Ransley (rowing). 27 C Froome (cycling), H Stanning (rowing). 29 M Langridge (rowing). 31 Z Phillips (equestrian), A Partridge (rowing). 32 B Wiggins (cycling). 33 R Egington (rowing), P Hill (rowing). 35 N Wilson (equestrian). 40 G Searle (rowing - men's eights). 41 T Cook (equestrianism). 43 W Fox-Pitt (equestrianism). 51 M King (equestrianism).Reuse content