That gloom reached an apex on a Sunday night after the 2012 Wimbledon Championships ended -- as it had for the previous 75 years -- without a British male champion. Andy Murray had been broken in the final by English rain, by Roger Federer, by the sadistic force that simply must stop Brits from winning the thing. Black clouds hung low, and the Scot's mother stood in a corner.
"It's what he's dreamed about, he works so unbelievably hard and he's come so close," Judy Murray said, nearly whispering. "You can see how much it means to him. Yeah, that's tough to watch."
She was speaking about the moment just after the loss, when Murray cracked on Centre Court and couldn't speak through his tears. More than any, tennis players took the decades-long brunt of an oddly British mix of ambition and self-laceration. It was a titanic cultural pressure placed on the U.K.'s finest, one that former British No. 1 John Lloyd said he "folded miserably under." Maybe, Lloyd added after that Wimbledon final, the crying would help the lad.
"Murray's pretty miserable on court; he bitches a lot," Lloyd said minutes after last month's Wimbledon final. "And there's a lot of people I know -- not just English people, Scottish people, too -- who can't stand him and wanted Federer to win."
Today, of course, such misery, such division -- the very idea of a Brit not liking Murray or any other British athlete -- is near unthinkable. Because for the first time in forever, the English public is actually living up to Shakespeare's description of "this happy breed of men." And why not? His scepter'd isle, suddenly, is winning big. Indeed, after a Saturday that saw heptathlete Jessica Ennis, long jumper Greg Rutherford and 10,000-meter runner Mo Farah all win gold, with its cyclists and rowers dominating, Great Britain then got the next best thing to Wimbledon at Wimbledon, when Murray crushed the No. 1 Federer in straight sets Sunday in the 2012 Summer Olympics final.
"I watched the athletics last night," Murray said afterward. "It was unbelievable. It just gave me, yeah, motivation to try to win that gold medal. You see how much it means to all of the athletes when they do it, how much work goes into it; I wanted to be part of that if I could. The atmosphere in all of the stadiums, when everyone's won gold medals in all of the sports: Everyone's been so happy and pumped. I'm just glad I've been able to contribute."
That Murray wasn't the sole focus of Britain's hope and glory no doubt made his road easier. Great Britain, which won just 15 medals at the 1996 Summer Games, stands fourth in the standings here with 40 medals so far -- and seems certain to finish with its biggest Olympic haul since 1908. Murray's celebration was just one in a series of Union Jack moments, and hardly the best. On Sunday, after winning his fourth gold in as many Games, sailor Ben Ainslie stood in his dinghy, "Rita," holding up two flaming red flares -- while 5,000 people bellowed, "Rule, Brittania!"
The traffic clogs and the strikes, by the way, never happened. No one is cursing the word "Olympics" now.
"Everyone's talking about it; it's everywhere you look," said hurdler Dai Greene, captain of Team GB's athletics squad and the current world champion in the 400 hurdles. "A few months ago the athletes knew the momentum was building and everyone was getting excited, but I don't quite think we believed it would be as good as it has been. And it certainly has cheered up the nation."
Great Britain needed it. The day after London won these Games in 2005, a terrorist attack on the city's mass transit system killed 52 people. Exactly a year ago, five people were killed and thousands were arrested after street riots erupted in North London, touching off four days of arson and looting across England and a yet ongoing spasm of national recrimination. Questions about disaffected youth and Britain's future dovetailed neatly with the London Games' stated mission to "inspire a generation" -- and thus, it took only until the opening ceremony was barely half over before the Brits' infamous cynicism began to melt.
That hardly came as a shock. British reserve was another casualty of Princess Diana's death 15 years ago and, besides, reintroducing a nation to itself is what the Olympics do especially well. As in Vancouver and Beijing, a weary populace was abruptly presented on their TVs not with rioters or reality show clowns or the same stale crop of politicians, but with a parade of handsome kids who work hard, excel and place hand over heart when the flag goes up. London became, as one writer dubbed it, "a blubber-fest"; TV presenters cheered openly, and opening ceremony director Danny Boyle was fitted for knighthood.
Still, for outsiders it all took some getting used to. London had neither the built-in narrative of Athens (Olympic roots) or Beijing (We are going to eat your lunch). Intellectually, the Games' essential disposableness -- all that plywood facing, all those venues and stadia made to be easily collapsed -- made sense as a money-saving measure, but it imbued the proceedings with a flimsy feel. After the first days were marred by ticketing snafus and a sputtering bus system, London 2012 felt like nothing so much as Atlanta '96. And who wanted that?
Yet as the competition took hold and British medals began to pile up, what seemed a minus became a plus. Unlike so many of its predecessors, London had no need to use the Olympics to make a statement, no need to build a soon-deserted Calatrava or a Bird's Nest to signal its importance.
"After London got the Games, there were people running around saying, 'This'll put London on the map,' " said Stefan Szymanski, a professor and co-author of Why England Lose. "Show me a map that London isn't on!"
Indeed, only a few other cities -- Paris, New York, Tokyo -- could afford to stage the Olympics without making a hard sell. And the effect is that, instead of sending the message of "Be impressed with us!" London organizers managed to make these Games all about them: Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and Missy Franklin, yes, but especially Ennis, gold-medal rowing pair Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland and silver-medal-winning sprinter Christine Ohuruogu, who grew up just a mile from Olympic Park.
And slowly, organically, the narrative of London 2012 materialized: Watch as a people emerge, blinking, from a deep national funk.
"We're a cold, wet country and we need some feel-good factor," Linford Christie, the most decorated sprinter in British history, said during Monday night's program at Olympic Stadium.
"British supporters come out here and cheer everyone, and we need it. We've been struggling for a long time, and a lot of people didn't think the Games were going to be a success. Even our own media: It was all doom and gloom, and for once they're writing positive things. And when people see that, it's like a domino effect, and they then become positive, too. It's beyond everybody's wildest dream. I mean, listen to the cheer -- especially for the Brits."
Christie was right: When Dai Greene emerged to run the 400 hurdles Monday night, a roar rolled around the stadium like a tidal wave coming. The gun cracked and he took off and then it only got louder, and the fact that Greene would finish fourth, with a time of 48.24, didn't seem to matter. Go, screamed the crowd, screamed London, screamed all of Britain, to the man racing down on the track. Be like the others. Remind us again of who we are.