The Nick Townsend column: Ordinary heroes can help London raise Beijing bar

Britain's medallists are the boys and girls next door with no egos – with their talent and imagination, anything is possible in 2012
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The Independent Online

Swear like a trooper? Like a GB sailor, more like. Here was the outwardly demure Bryony Shaw, from Weymouth, wailing her reaction to a bronze in the windsurfing and suddenly she sobs the words: "I am so fucking happy." Ian Percy, gold medallist in the Star class, was at it, too, the following day. Easy for those not familiar with it, to forget that this was live TV. Once again, a po-faced BBC felt obliged to apologise to those "who may have been offended". One imagines that it provoked mild amusement rather than outrage. Because what has made Britain's winners so endearing is their ordinariness. These lads and lasses could be your neighbours; driven by raw dedication to succeed. Not by ego, or with a new £100,000-a-week contract, or branding, in mind.

They scream, they weep, they ramble incoherently, and invariably they put all their success down, in a sub-Oscar speech, to their coach, and mum and dad. They react like the rest of us would, probably. Not like media-trained automatons. Yes, sometimes they even forget themselves, and swear.

Some are "professional" athletes, although far from well-rewarded ones; some have a "proper" job; and some are students, though not the kind who prompted the jibe from David Brent's salesman mate, "Finchy", in The Office, that their main aim in life was to be "Professor in charge of watching Countdown every day". Indeed, their determination to mine that piece of precious metal makes them the very antithesis of that perception.

The result has been a chorus of approval, even from certain media observers who generally regard sport as the frippery that comes after the business section and possesses a relevance rather less compelling than insights into Madonna at 50 and the 10 best buys in handbags. It is a reaction so powerful and so in unison that they would win Last Choir Standing by a mile and it suggests there's going to be a right old literary knees-up down the East End in a touch under four years' time.

Suddenly anyone who extols the benefits of the Olympics are on the side of the righteous. Everybody wants to be associated with success. And none more so than the politicians who are contesting that popular event, the London to Beijing dash. Did you see Tony Blair applauding Chris Hoy and the team at the velodrome? Apparently, he had rushed there, having heard there were WMDs, only to discover that these were British – the Wheels of Mass Devastation – at least where Aussie hopes were concerned.

In fact the only PM of recent memory not present is Sir John Major, whose launching of the National Lottery in 1994 played a significant part in Britain's ascendancy in the medal standings. Impressive though it is, of course, that table doesn't bear too close an examination. Far be it from this observer to demand temperance in the saloon bar of British euphoria, but we should inject some sober perspective here. As The Beatles didn't quite sing: "You don't know how lucky you are...having the backing of the CSSR." The fact is that Cycling, Sailing, Swimming and Rowing (we'll throw flatwater kayaking into that category) have contributed every gold other than Christine Ohuruogu and James DeGale.

Last weekend, a fellow writer made the point that, without Michael Phelps, the US tally would be similar to GB's. You could look at it another way. Deduct those 17 golds of Britain's 19 won on, and in, water and on wheels, and GB's record is on a par with Hungary and Switzerland. Also, if the medal table was adjusted to take into account size of population, GB, at the last time of counting, would be 21st. Australia would be in third place. Just something to contemplate lest Britain gets rather too carried away with itself.

If you're really determined to spoil the fun, you'll introduce the dreaded word "meritocracy". Or, in Beijing, the lack of it. The relatively high proportion of GB golds won by those who went to independent schools (which are attended by only seven per cent of the population) should, says one vehement critic, cause us to question the whole ethos of the Olympics being regarded as "a bastion of meritocracy, where success is determined by hard work and talent rather than privilege" – even if many would respond that actually this is an indictment of the state sector and in most cases, Britain's gold-fingers haven't so much had a financial leg-up from daddy but have prospered more because of parental sacrifice, allied to highly proficient coaching.

What he cannot deny is that there are more opportunities for sporting excellence in Britain than ever before. In rowing, there's the World Class Start programme. In cycling, anyone can turn up at the Manchester velodrome and ride. At most sailing clubs, children are encouraged to take part. And it's not expensive. A second-hand dinghy can cost you a few hundred pounds.

One thing is certain. However we regard the triumphs of 2008, they can only encourage more cycling, swimming, running and participation in other sports, and not just among the young. There should be other legacies, too: namely a more healthy nation and a belief that anything is possible.

That includes putting on a good show. After the opening ceremony excesses of Beijing, what the world doesn't need is even more of the same. As certain glamour models have demonstrated, big and false can still look cheap, whatever the outlay. These Games will be remembered not for the computer-enhanced opening ceremony – spectacular though it was – but for the achievements of Phelps and Usain Bolt, and in Britain for the heroics of the great unsung.

London has more than sufficient history and culture and, yes, imagination and talent, if not the multi-billion budget, to ensure it can leap over the bar Beijing has set.

Capello keeps his own counsel but the evidence is plain to see

We had been told unequivocably, little more than a week ago: "The time for experimentation is over." Wednesday's starting line-up was, with the exception of the injured Owen Hargreaves, "the real thing" according to Fabio Capello. Only one problem. Such confidence conflicted with the evidence in the friendly with the Czech Republic.

Capello should wear a T-shirt with the message "Fabio Says Relax", such is his apparent insouciance. Don't let the Italian delude you. If he was as content with this exhibition as he seemed there's something seriously amiss with his thinking. And his past record doesn't suggest he is too often guilty of that. He will be as aware as the rest of us that questions marks remain over virtually every area of England's set-up, from goalkeeper to the most advanced striker. There were as many doubts as existed under Steve McClaren.

Until substitutes David Bentley and Stewart Downing belatedly offered England real width, and Joe Cole began to shine, there were too few moments when the midfield could out-manoeuvre their Czech counterparts. Gareth Barry possessed little of the authority he displayed in previous friendlies. David Beckham, notwithstanding the occasional tantalising cross, does not contribute enough.

And, of course, there's still no solution to the great conundrum: how to extract the optimum from Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. It possibly won't be until Capello substitutes "or" for "and" – again it was shown that they don't flourish in the same team.

Whatever responsibilities Capello prefers to confer on Gerrard when he gives him a left-sided role, it's as alien territory to him as desert is to a polar bear. Gerrard often drifts inside, which is fine, up to a point; except that Wayne Rooney moves out into the space vacated, and that doesn't suit him, either.

Capello insists his key personnel, in particular Gerrard and Rooney, lacked match fitness. But this will have heartened no one – except the coach of England's opponents on 10 September, Croatia's Slaven Bilic.