In one unforgettable night for a nation, the Olympic Games and their host, Britain, were the best they can be.
Three British athletes winning three gold medals in the Olympic Stadium in a delirious 44-minute spell produced the signature moment of the London Games.
Barring catastrophe in the final week, this Saturday night of fever and fervor made sure that the London Olympics will be remembered as a roaring success.
It was a night when the prefix “Great” before “Britain” suddenly seemed to make a lot more sense. It ended, so appropriately, with the massive crowd in the 80,000-seat stadium awash in the colors of the Union Jack’s red, white and blue and belting out “God Save the Queen” to celebrate sporting success beyond their wildest expectations.
To be truly memorable, the best Olympics need moments like these.
Beijing in 2008 had Michael Phelps eclipsing Mark Spitz’s iconic record with eight golds in the Water Cube and Usain Bolt getting three golds in three world-record sprints in the Bird’s Nest.
Sydney in 2000 had Aborigine Cathy Freeman, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson together conjuring up one of the most memorable nights ever on an Olympic track.
And at the midpoint of the 2012 games, London on Saturday had hometown athletes Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah winning one after another, whipping to a froth the stadium crowd that proved to be a star, too, by lifting their champions to undreamt-of heights.
“I’m worried I’m going to wake up in a minute and this ain’t going to be real,” said Rutherford, who won the long jump.
“Incredible night. I mean how many people expected three gold medals out of three possible gold medals? It’s the greatest night in British athletics history, I think,” he said. “It’s been about inspiring a generation. What can be more inspring than going out and winning?”
“Unbelievable,” said Ennis, the heptathlon champion who lived up to her billing as the poster girl of the London games. “I’m just still in shock.”
“It’s just amazing. If it wasn’t for the crowd I don’t think that would happen,” said Farah, winner of the 10,000 meters. “They give you that lift, that boost. It’s just incredible.”
It certainly was.
Before these games, Britons lamented that they had become a nation of gold-medal gripers. Olympic critics moaned about the 9.3 billion pound ($14.4 billion) bill for the games, the feared disruption for two weeks to London’s way of life and its traffic network, the privileges accorded to Olympic organizers, visitors and sponsors.
But all that was buried by the spellbinding drama from 9:02 p.m., London time, when Ennis clinched heptathlon gold, to 9:46, when Farah won the 10,000 and clasped his head in a disbelief. In between, Rutherford won gold with his leap of 8.31 meters (27 feet, 3 1/4 inches) into the long jump pit.
When added to two more golds from the rowers and another from women’s track cycling on Saturday, Britain’s total for the day was six. For the games, its haul so far is 14 golds, seven silver and eight bronze, for a total of 29. Only China, with 53 medals, and the United States, the leader with 54, have more.
“Team GB’s glutinous desire for gold shows no sign of being sated,” said London mayor Boris Johnson. “Their extraordinary efforts have brought rapture to streets, parks and living rooms in London and all over the country, if not the planet.”
That really didn’t seem to be an exaggeration.
In the guts of the stadium, British winners came through so thick and fast to recount their emotions to journalists that one of their press managers labored to deal with the one-after-another flow.
“I’ve got a queue of Olympic champions,” she said.
This was the day when Britain delivered - in all senses of the word: in sporting success and in generously shared joy. The inferiority complex that comes from being an island on the edge of Europe with only history books to record how it once ruled much of the world gave way to unbridled national pride.
In the stadium, the focus for it all, the pride came without arrogance. The warm, fuzzy feeling was perhaps best expressed in the way the crowd, swaying from side to side and waving small flags on sticks, sang along to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” that played over the loudspeakers. To make the picture perfect, Paul McCartney happened to be in the stadium, and he celebrated, too, by waving a Union Jack above his head. David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was replayed, and replayed, and replayed. The London Olympics have swung continually to British pop and rock classics.
Prince William and his wife, Kate, and Prime Minister David Cameron, were also there. Cameron called the atmosphere “electric” and tweeted on his office account: “Awe inspiring win for Jessica Ennis. Proud to be cheering her on with the home crowd.”
Non-Britons felt thrilled and privileged to share it.
“Fantastic night, incredible crowd,” said Farah’s American coach, Alberto Salazar. “I’ve been to a lot of Olympics but I have never seen a crowd as supportive as this crowd is for all the British athletes. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
“Awesome crowd,” said U.S. long jumper Will Claye, who won bronze. “They were awesome for all of us. Not just the British.”
Jonathan Edwards, now a television presenter, was reminded of Sydney in 2000, when he won triple-jump gold for Britain, Freeman became the first Aborigine to win an individual Olympic gold medal, in the women’s 400 meters, and Johnson made Olympic history by becoming the first man to successfully defend a 400-meter title. Gebrselassie also successfully defended his 10,000-meter crown. This all in one night. Edwards called it “Magic Monday.”
“In world terms, maybe that still stands as the greatest night,” he said.
But London’s “Super Saturday” lived up to its name, too.
“That won’t be topped,” said Edwards. “To see a night like that - Jess Ennis set up to be the golden girl, Mo the golden guy, Greg Rutherford to come from almost nowhere to win a gold medal. It’s just staggering. You need a new lexicon, actually. You run out of words to describe that.”
“The tension never ratcheted down at all.” he said. “So, for sustained excitement, I don’t know if there’s ever been a night like that in track and field history.”
Usain Bolt, whose hotly anticipated showdown with Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake follows on Sunday night, might have something to say about that.
But out-shouting and out-shining this night could prove impossible even for him.