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Rowers give host Brits long-awaited gold medal

British fans rowing venue cheer gold medalists Heather Stanning Helen Glover. | NatachPisarenko~AP

British fans at the rowing venue cheer on gold medalists Heather Stanning and Helen Glover. | Natacha Pisarenko~AP

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Updated: September 3, 2012 1:25PM

LONDON — It’s difficult to describe the undercurrent of “concern’’ — the British don’t do panic — that was flowing here during the first five days of the Olympics.

Great Britain hadn’t won a gold medal yet, and a nation was getting a bit, shall we say, bothered. I only put it that way because the Brits deal in understatement. They were actually sweating bullets.

Oh, they said they weren’t, but the sheer number of times they told each other that betrayed them.

It was rowing that finally brought the first gold, but it could have been foosball or candlelight bowling or competitive cooking. The British didn’t care. They just wanted to win and celebrate. Mostly, they just wanted to win.

I know this because the BBC commentator who was handling the women’s pairs competition Wednesday had this to say as Heather Stanning and Helen Glover closed in on victory:

“The whole of the nation will lift this boat and drive it on!”

Wow. It’s some competitive advantage when you don’t have to row. The commentator also described the last leg of the race as “a magnificent fairy tale’’ and “1,200 meters to glory.’’

If the Brits somehow win gold in swimming or track, the island might just drift out to sea for good.

It’s lucky that rowing builds up the shoulders because Stanning and Glover had the hopes of an entire nation on theirs. A writer in the Independent newspaper had guaranteed the victory, and Sir Steve Redgrave, a five-time rowing gold medalist for Great Britain, predicted the pair would be on the cover of every newspaper in the country Thursday morning if it won.

Prince William, Prince Harry and Princess Anne were in attendance Wednesday, so no pressure whatsoever, ladies.

Their boat cut though that pressure like a knife. A country celebrated. In pubs throughout Great Britain and in London wherever big screens had been set up outside, the citizenry roared.

Thank goodness that’s over.

The host country always feels pressure to put on a good show, but I’ve not been at an Olympics where the host has spent so much time taking its own temperature. I thought Sydney in 2000 was the most inward looking until I started paying attention to the media coverage here.

Newspapers have devoted page after page to “Team GB,’’ and the BBC’s TV coverage has been British-centric. I’ve heard the carping about NBC’s tape-delayed broadcast. British audiences are seeing events in real time and in real patriotic hues.

The media had to pay attention to American swimmer Michael Phelps when he won his 19th ­medal, making him the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. Kind of hard to ignore all that jangling. Same with the doping allegations directed at 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen.

But then it was back to our regularly scheduled coverage of Great Britain’s equestrian team.

When it comes to these Games, the Brits seem to care about the rest of the world like you might care about parsley.

There’s a strain of pride here that I’m not sure a country with the size and complicated makeup of the United States can ever have. And I must say I’m envious. Somehow, these people can get wrapped up in what we would consider obscure sports. They can get away with having outsized patriotism. We can’t.

The international community rolls its eyes when Americans chant “U-S-A, U-S-A,’’ at the Olympics, and there indeed is something grating about it. But here, whenever any British athlete is announced, fans scream as if a rock star has walked in. Doesn’t matter what the sport is. Could be synchronized table tennis for all they care. When Caitlin McClatchey swam in the 200-freestyle final Tuesday night, the noise inside the Aquatics Centre threatened to knock the building off its moorings. McClatchey finished seventh but was still allowed to stay in the country.

The Brits have put a lot of time and money into winning gold ­medals at these Games, and they would like to see themselves in the top five in the medal count when it’s all over.

So it was a big deal Wednesday when Stanning-Glover came in as the favorites. They knew what they were in for before the race: heaps of pressure to win their country’s first gold.

“Everything you sacrificed for the last four years is coming down to seven minutes of your life,’’ Glover said.

Afterward, prime minister ­David Cameron tweeted, “I couldn’t be more delighted that Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have won the #1stgold medal for Team GB. Here’s to many more.”

A little while later, Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins won the time trial. He, too, is ­British, and the country once again went bonkers. It doesn’t look like this will ever get old here.

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