The landing was competent enough. The dismount scored perfect tens. The door of flight BA 2016 from Rio de Janeiro popped open and there at the top of the steps were Max Whitlock and Nicola Adams, arms in their air, smiles on their faces, gold round their necks.
The women’s hockey team were next. Then Heather Stanning. Helen Glover. All stepping into a gentle wall of noise generated by a crowd of Heathrow airport staff and the wide throng of TV cameras on the Terminal 5 tarmac. As they spilled down the steps and spread on to the ground for the obligatory photographs, no one appeared too obviously the worse for wear. Team GB: immaculate to the end. No wonder the Chinese are asking questions.
It had erupted around ten minutes earlier when, preempted by that familiar rumble, a gold disc appeared in the blue west London sky: the specially painted golden nose of VictoRIOus, as British Airways had christened the 747 bringing Team GB back to London. It was almost as if it were forecasting the weather. In fact, it was reporting on happy times, far away.
It was also carrying secrets. VictoRIOus had not yet touched the tarmac by the time phones had reconnected themselves with good old British 4G and the images of a long night over the Atlantic, with 300 joy-drunk men and women in matching tracksuits were appearing online. There was gymnast Whitlock, arms planted on two club-class chair backs, legs in the air at rictus right angles, levitating over the aisle like a star above a Bethlehem stable. There was Nicola Adams again. The nation is no stranger to the ten thousand watt grin of its most accomplished female boxer. This might be the first time it has seen it augmented by what appears to be a large Baileys.
Team GB’s home Games four years ago might have been perfect, but it hadn’t had a homecoming. The joyous reconnections with jubilant friends and families had had been spread into every corner of the land, usually with some gold paint drying on a nearby post box. Not everyone can be lucky enough to have seen with their own eyes, Trott and Kenny come sweeping round that high bank of the velodrome. Seen those hockey heroes rushing goalwards, the impossible dream secured. But Heathrow Airport was alive with that same magic.
Pictures of the baggage hall showed 500 identical red cases with the words Great Britain up the sides of them. Good luck sorting that one out. Not that anyone minded. At a press conference Mark England, Team GB’s Chef de Mission, called it the greatest sporting achievement in the nation’s history. Only an opinion, of course, but if anything could confirm it, it was what came next. A Chinese journalist asking: “How did you beat us?”
That Great Britain would have its share of golden moments in the Marvellous City was eminently foreseeable. Nobody could foresee that. “It is because you spend more than us,” she suggested. “Well, China won’t say how much they spend,” Bill Sweeney, the British Olympic Association’s chief executive told her. “But I very much doubt we spend more.” Whatever that Chinese figure is, you can be certain it will be going up. You can be certain it has already gone up. Tokyo 2020: Bring it on.
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