Normally our sports stars come home with red faces. Yesterday, though, a golden nose descended from the cloudy skies above Heathrow, and once again Britain's Beijing Olympic heroes made the nation forget the summer gloom.
They were carried in a British Airways 747, suitably renamed Pride – after the British squad's lion mascot – that had had its nose cone repainted the colour of the 19 medals won by Team GB athletes. On the side of the fuselage, the words "Proud to bring our British heroes home" were emblazoned.
Such has been the impact this squad has had on the national psyche that the public had been warned to stay away for fear that tens of thousands of well-wishers could have caused chaos at Heathrow, yet, thanks to beaming airport staff, there were still ranks of Union flags thrust into the sky as swimmers, runners, cyclists, rowers and others prepared for landing.
Pride touched down and as it taxied towards the terminal, cheers joined the flags. After what seemed an age, Lord Coe emerged from a door and descended the steps. But it was today's champions the nation longed to see back on home soil.
More waiting, and then, led by Chris Hoy and Rebecca Adlington, they were back, bearing medals and the sort of smiles that are usually wiped off British sportsmen and women's faces long before the final whistle. But the Olympic class of 2008 have shown that they are different.
Not only are they winners, but they take victory with a style and manner often lacking in today's arenas. Then yesterday provided the moment to show us their booty: 47 medals; 19 gold, 13 silver and 15 bronze. They wore them with Pride, as the cameras flashed.
After handshakes with the Prime Minister, it was off to a nearby hotel where they were greeted by their families and the waiting media – something many of them will have to get used to.
Hoy, the triple gold medal-winning cyclist, said it had been "crazy" meeting the Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and the England footballer David Beckham at the Olympic handover ceremony on Sunday.
Of his new-found celebrity, he said: "It's been crazy for the last few days. I'm just looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. I'm certainly going to continue on to London in 2012. I want to focus on my sport. It's going to be exciting; it's going to be fun, and I just need to get the balance right to make sure there's enough commitment to my sport. Anything else goes in around that." Responding to rumours that he may be in line for a knighthood, he said: "That is ridiculous, to be honest."
The family of the gold medal-winning boxer James DeGale held aloft a banner declaring him "James the Gold", and cheered wildly as he made his way down a red carpet to the hotel entrance. Of the flight, the 22-year-old from Harlesden, north-west London, said: "We were just sitting back chilling, sipping the champers. It was wicked."
At the press conference, some of the athletes appeared dazed by the reception. Simon Clegg, Team GB's chef de mission, hailed an "inspiring and outstanding" performance from the athletes. He said: "No one expected this level of reception. But today the focus should be on the athletes. For me, it's been a huge privilege to lead such a close-knit, motivated and successful team. I hope that many of these athletes will be with us at the greatest moment in British sport when we host the Games in London in 2012."
Lord Moynihan, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, added: "It's a historic day – the best results for Team GB for 100 years. The whole team is very grateful to the British public, who have been absolutely magnificent in their enthusiasm and commitment in supporting the team." One of the first to make us stand up and take notice that this was to be no ordinary Olympics was Rebecca Adlington, the swimmer from Mansfield who won two gold medals. "Obviously, I had my expectations, but it wasn't two gold medals at all. It's been fantastic," she said.
After the press conference, her father, Steve, said she did not have any idea how big a celebrity she had become in Britain. "I just hope she's not overwhelmed by it all – but I don't think she will be for one second, I think she'll just enjoy it," he added. "She's so focused, so dedicated, but more importantly she loves what she does. I think she'll get back in the pool as soon as she can."
After all, she and many more of the team now have the small matter of London 2012 to look forward to.
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