By Alexander Wolff
July 27, 2012

They beat out their rivals across the Channel to get the Olympics. On Sunday, they lorded it over the French again as Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit ever to win the Tour de France. With the Games here, the British aren't looking for a whole lot more. Only the following:

Seven years in the making, the London Olympics will bring to an end an epic run of British extravaganzas. The city's third huge spectacle in little more than a year caps a season of celebrations that began with the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate in April 2011, and continued with June's Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II's rule. The Brit on the street hopes the nation can pull off the trifecta with a calamity-free Olympics marked by dignity and wit. At the same time, he shares in the national sense of foreboding that something will go wrong, even beyond one Member of Parliament's pre-Games assertion that security had been "a humiliating shambles." Count on a fortnight of crossed fingers, and a huge sigh of relief if the cauldron is extinguished on Aug. 12 after no major incidents.

In a country where royalty, pageantry and heraldry all still rate, there's huge curiosity over who'll have the honor of lighting the cauldron during Friday night's opening ceremony. For months, the debate has raged by proxy: LOCOG chief Sebastian Coe makes no secret that he favors his old mate, decathlon great Daley Thompson; British Olympic Association chair Colin Moynihan, a former coxswain, backs his own sport's greatest, five-time gold medalist Steve Redgrave. Then the two leading candidates took to the press to run down the other's accomplishments, which only increases the likelihood that some compromise candidate will sneak through.

Will it be Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to break four minutes in the mile? Dame Kelly Holmes, the sprinter who won two golds in Athens? Some youthful unknown, as at the last London Olympics in 1948, who would embody the Games' motto, "Inspire a Generation?" Late hints from organizers -- they say they've made their decision, but won't divulge it -- suggest "a wow moment," in the words of Team GB chef de mission Andy Hunt, featuring one or perhaps more people who bridge the Olympic and celebrity worlds.

Maybe it's a result of the country's shameless tabloid press, or perhaps a narrative culture that can be traced from Shakespeare through Dickens to Martin Amis. Whatever the source, Brits can't get enough of the melodramatic stories of diver Tom Daley and cyclist Victoria Pendleton.

Daley, who was bullied as a child, will try to beat out a raft of talented Chinese divers to honor his father, who died last year at age 40. Pendleton's dad channeled his own unrealized cycling ambitions into his daughter, not always to her liking, according to a tear-saturated BBC documentary that aired last week. The show also detailed how Pendleton fell in love with one of the team's support staff, Scott Gardner, which led to his banishment before she won what she described as a joyless gold in Beijing.

Gardner, now her fiancée, is back in the fold, but the resentment of some teammates isn't entirely gone, and Pendleton may be riding less to win than to finish up her career so she can get on with her life. Tune in, Britain will -- and it doesn't hurt that both Daley and Pendleton look like leads in a soap opera.

Her image is in the National Portrait Gallery. It's in Madame Tussaud's. It's in a field on a flight path into Heathrow, winking up at Olympic visitors on final approach. It's in ads for Adidas, Aviva, BP, British Airways, Olay, Omega and Powerade, as well as Jaguar, which accounts for her having left a training session last week in a $126,000 XKR coupe. Alas, Jessica Ennis is plying her specialty at a time when two other heptathletes, Tatyana Chernova of Russia and Nataliya Dobrynska of Ukraine, are clustered with her at the top of the world rankings. There will be much national hand-wringing if the "face of the team" wound up second or third. Conversely, if she were to win the gold, will Brits fully appreciate how impressive that victory would be?

In several sports it will be an entirely new concept to have a Great Britain team encompassing all the "home nations" of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But there's strength in numbers drawn from a larger catchment area, and several women's sports have a good chance for a breakthrough.

The English nucleus of Britain's women's soccer team reached the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups. In field hockey, Britain won silver at a major international event, the Champions Trophy, earlier this year. And women's basketball, under veteran Australian coach Tom Maher, has made huge strides, actually leading the prohibitive gold-medal favorite Americans by 21-10 early in an exhibition last week.

A home Olympics with British women challenging for team titles would conjure up comparisons to the U.S. women in Atlanta, who won golds in basketball, soccer and softball. A women's team sport has never connected with the British public on a large scale. To have even one hit, at a home Olympics, would mark a watershed moment in the national sporting culture.

There's a whiskered tradition of interest in and respect for track and field, or "athletics" as it's called in Britain. Even if Coe hadn't delivered these Games to London, he'd remain revered for winning the 1,500 meters in back-to-back Olympics; meanwhile the nation's theatres are lousy right now with stage and screen revivals of Chariots of Fire.

For the quadrennium since Beijing, Brits have assumed that Usain Bolt would simply show up in London to win the 100 and reclaim the title of Fastest Man Alive. But recent events have led experts to reconsider: Countryman Yohan Blake beat Bolt in the 100 and 200 at Jamaica's Olympic Trials, and with a back problem addling Bolt since, those wobbly results will stand as his last until London. Fold into the field another Jamaican, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay of the U.S., the third and fourth fastest 100-meter men in history, and you've got a real race.

Awareness of Bolt's vulnerability hasn't fully registered with the wider British public. But as more and more Brits realize the uncertainty of the outcome, the hottest ticket will only get hotter.

The entire country comes into the Olympics with bicycling on the mind following Wiggins' victory in the Tour, where four other riders who'll suit up for Team GB won stages. One of them, Mark Cavendish, will have his teammates working for him in the men's road race, which takes place on Saturday, the first full day of Olympic competition. The sprint specialist from the Isle of Man has shed weight to better negotiate a course that requires nine climbs of pesky Box Hill in Surrey.

Even IOC chief Jacques Rogge has confessed that, along with decent weather for the opening ceremony the night before, a British gold in the road race, which finishes on the Mall, would be his fondest wish, for how it would get the Games off on the right foot. If that's how a former Belgian sailor feels, imagine the passions of a typical Brit.

Of all the ways that London will remind us that we're not in Beijing anymore, the most noticeable figures to be what will be heard. From the opening ceremony, which Paul McCartney will close by singing Hey Jude; to Team GB's theme song, Queen's One Vision; to originally commissioned anthems by artists including Elton John and Muse; to a playlist of (inevitably) 2,012 songs to be boomed out at venues, there'll be no way to avoid, to quote Soul II Soul frontman and native Londoner Jazzie B, "a smiling face, a thumping bass, for a loving race."

At a few venues the music will be live, featuring the stylings of such acts as Scissor Sisters, Rizzle Kicks and Sub Focus. Organizers are trying so hard that they inadvertently extended an invitation to Keith Moon, the former drummer for The Who, not realizing that he was dead. For that Darryl Seibel, the American who runs the British Olympic press shop, cuts organizers some slack: "Jerry Glanville used to leave tickets for Elvis."

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