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Terence Blacker

Terence Blacker: Gracious in defeat: now that's legacy

In their decency, Olympians have mirrored the attitude of the crowd

Buzzwords coined by politicians tend to transfer quickly from the serious Westminster stage to the comic fringe, becoming an easy joke for satirists and TV panellists. Unexpectedly, this summer's No 1 in the jargon charts, "legacy", has gone in the opposite direction, and is now taken seriously. It is just a question of deciding which legacy is most likely to be left by London 2012: a renewed sense of national self-confidence, the revival of school sports, the return of patriotism, or even cheerfulness.

One great achievement of the Olympics has gone largely unnoticed. The British have learned how to lose with grace and generosity. Saying the right things after a victory is relatively easy. It has been the way those who have lost narrowly (the gymnast Louis Smith, the athlete Christine Ohuruogu) or when expected to win (the swimmer Rebecca Adlington, sailors Simpson and Percy) which will leave a legacy beyond sport.

All these competitors admitted their devastating disappointment, but each made the point that competing had been an honour, that the crowd had made it all worthwhile, that they were lucky to be there.

To get a sense of how unusual it is to find grace among sporting losers, one has only to turn to top-level football. Think of the players storming off the pitch after a defeat, the bilious post-match moaning of managers, the rage and nastiness of some losing fans towards players and rival supporters.

It is too easy to blame this ugliness on the money and greed of footballers. In fact, it reflects a wider influence. The unrealistic expectations, the pathetic excuses, the blaming and bullying of managers or players, are symptoms of a society which forgot that sport is a game, that losing is not the end of the world.

The same process has taken place in London this summer, but in a positive direction. The gratitude and decency expressed by British competitors who failed to win owed nothing to sports psychologists or coaches, but has mirrored the attitude of the crowd. Spectators have done what was least expected: they have looked on the bright side, smiling when home athletes have lost as well as when they have won. "It was uplifting," said Christine Ohuruogu, taking in the applause. "I thought, 'Why should I be miserable when so many people have enjoyed what I have done?'."

No doubt we will be hearing much more from the triumphant British competitors of London 2012, but it is the silver and bronze spirit of Ohuruogu, Adlington, Smith and others that deserves to be celebrated, and to live on.