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Leading article: A glint of gold in Beijing

If you haven't taken much notice of the Olympics, do so now. Why? Because it won't get any better for Britain than it did this weekend, and this dizzy-making moment, when we rank third in the world with our haul of 11 golds, won't last for ever.

After years of being told that our sporting culture is in hopeless decay, and that the only things in which the nation excels are binge-drinking and obesity, Britain's athletes pulled off an astonishing coup, bagging nine medals, including four golds, in only 10 hours on Saturday before scooping another four golds on Sunday. Not bad for a country that sent only 340 athletes to Beijing, which is just over the half the number that the US fielded. We owe a collective debt, among many others, to such magnificent morale-boosters as Rebecca Adlington, the first British woman to win two swimming golds, and Rebecca Romero, the first British woman to manage the feat of medals in two different sports, rowing and cycling.

Whether the last week of the Games before Sunday's Closing Ceremony can deliver similar triumphs looks unlikely. The competitions for the sports in which we do best are almost over. But a warm feeling of goodwill on Britain's part about the Olympics in general has been created that is unlikely to dissipate. Once again, against a background of controversy and politics, sport has demonstrated its regenerative powers and ability to act as a catalyst for a feeling of national wellbeing.

In Britain's case, such boosts are rare and necessary. Perhaps it is the common curse of all ex-imperial powers – to dwell on decline and fall, and assume all great endeavours will end in hubris. It is why this weekend's golds came as such a jolt. As a country, we are psychologically unprepared for the realisation that this country contains so many youngsters who are prepared to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of excellence.

Next Sunday, as the Olympics close, London will be formally anointed Beijing's successor. Whatever happens in the meantime, the weekend's triumphs have played a vital role in persuading public opinion here that the Olympic Committee was right to entrust Britain with the Games in 2012 and that the London Games may be something to celebrate.