Britain abandons stiff upper lip for glory of Games

LONDON Mon Aug 6, 2012 10:28am EDT

Britain's Prince William (C), his wife Catherine (L), Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry cheer for the British team as they watch the track cycling event at the Velodrome during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 2, 2012. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Britain's Prince William (C), his wife Catherine (L), Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry cheer for the British team as they watch the track cycling event at the Velodrome during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

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LONDON (Reuters) - Royal hugs in public, quivering lips on the podium and the deafening roar of the home crowd urging on their athletes at the London Olympics shows 21st century Britain has finally shed its reserved imperial-era persona.

Regarded as a nation of restraint portrayed in TV dramas such as "Downton Abbey", Britons - who often sniff at public emotion as a foreign lapse of control - have wept, screamed for their heroes and been overcome with Olympian emotion at the triumphs and tragedies of sport.

Ever since the death of Princess Diana in a 1997 Paris car crash, when Britons grieved en masse for the woman populist former Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed the "people's princess", the stiff upper lip has been giving way to grins and trembles.

Now the nation which invented soccer, rugby, cricket, modern field hockey has thrown its arms wide open to the Olympics in the most public display of emotion in a decade and a half.

A thrilling weekend, during which Britain leaped to third on the medals table with 16 golds behind China and the United States, has fuelled a national wave of excitement at heroics on the tennis court, around the cycling velodrome, on the water, at the track and in the pool.

Scottish tennis player Andy Murray never really captured the public imagination until his loss in the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer last month. His post-match tears on court won the hearts of the nation and his gold medal-winning grudge match against Federer on Sunday turned sorrow to joy.

"The British public, I think their reaction to his defeat, it surrounded him with so much love and admiration," Murray's mother Judy told Reuters as her son waved to fans.

"GOING MAD"

The Union Jack flag, which once flew proudly over two-thirds of the planet at the height of an empire now referred to by Britons with polite embarrassment, is emblazoned on every form of clothing from plastic bowler hats to fingernail polish.

Everywhere a fellow Briton such as 10,000 meter Olympic champion Mo Farah, cycling gold medalist Victoria Pendleton or tabloid "golden girl" heptathlete Jessica Ennis wins, the stands erupt into a fluttering frenzy of howling red, white and blue.

Josh Boon and friend Sam Bennett, 20-year-old English tradesmen who spent Sunday touring venues in skin-tight Union Jack body suits, said the tight-lipped, buttoned down Britain embodied in films such as David Lean's "Brief Encounter" means nothing to their generation.

"I nearly cried when Mo Farah won," Boon told Reuters on the way to catch the British women's volleyball team. "Everyone is going mad (for the Olympics) and that reserved Britain is gone."

The ultimate arbiter of the public mood may be the monarchy.

The British royals have embraced the Olympic hoopla with a gusto the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Queen Elizabeth kicked off the Games by starring in a James Bond vignette at the opening ceremony.

Escorted by Bond, played by actor Daniel Craig, in a helicopter gliding over a cheering London, the 86-year-old sovereign was shown apparently leaping out with a Union Jack parachute for an Olympic arrival to trump all others.

Her father George VI wore a formal military uniform when he opened the last London Games in 1948.

"There was a lightness of touch about what the queen did at the Olympics - it was absolutely right," said Simon Lewis, who as the queen's Communications Secretary from 1998 to 2000 helped to polish the monarch's reputation after Diana's death.

HAPPY HUGS

Since then the queen's grandchildren have grasped the emotional baton, granddaughter Zara Phillips won an equestrian silver and her cousins have graced the grandstands for some of the nation's greatest sporting moments, with Prince William and his photogenic young wife Kate snapped in a jubilant embrace after cyclist Chris Hoy's gold medal win.

Britons are riding high at the moment, but the feel good factor may be brief, Olympic historian Martin Polley said, pointing to the short stretch of time between last spring's euphoric royal wedding and summer riots in the capital.

"There is a lot of feel good now, but I don't know of any evidence to suggest that such ephemeral moods last," the senior lecturer in sport at Southampton University told Reuters.

For the moment though, Londoners on trains, buses and planes who ordinarily avoid conversations on public transport have been trading Olympic gossip like chummy neighbors at a garden party.

"Did you hear Ennis has just won gold in the heptathlon," was enough to bring smiles to faces and a small cheer on a late train to Cambridge from London on Saturday.

A man dressed in sports gear made the rounds of a packed Stratford Underground station at the Olympic Park hugging each of the female police officers and a beefy bobby on crowd control duty nearby shrugged and said:

"It's a party atmosphere, everyone is here to have fun."

After rescuing London organizers from a security dilemma, British troops have turned into another ray of light at the Games, smiling, helpful, doing conga lines at some events and providing the kind of satisfying reassurance that if there is any bother the Royal Marines are on hand.

The roar of the home crowd has been deafening at Dorney Lake, where BBC rowing commentator Dan Topolski refers to them as a vital part of every British crew. With 500 meters to go in any of the 2000 meter races, the rowers have met a wall of noise from flag-waving fans screaming their heads off.

Gold-medal winning rower Katherine Grainger hugged five-time gold medalist Steve Redgrave the minute she came off the water - one of the countless athletes who struggled to hold back tears on the podium.

Out in the Olympic Park, volunteers in their garish uniforms have been helpful, friendly, singing and laughing with the thousands of visitors thronging the pathways, parks and venues.

Andrew "Gripper" Watson, working at the basketball arena, said he had expected the nine hour shifts on his feet to be a grind but each day the crowd has lifted him.

"Everyone has been so great, smiling, they're cock-a-hoop just to be here," he told Reuters.

(Editing by Matt Falloon)

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