- 21 Aug 08, 06:08 PM
Once upon a time Britain's rivalry with Russia was referred to as the "Great Game", Asia was the playing field and India was the prize. Now, Asia is still the playing field, India's nowhere and the prize is a great Games.
With three days left and 63 gold medals still to be decided, Team GB are going head-to-head with Russia for third place in the Beijing medal table.
After Super Saturday, Splendid Sunday and Terrific Tuesday, the impossible seemed possible: Britain's Olympic team really could finish as high as third in the Olympic standings for the first time in 88 years.
But then the track cycling, rowing and sailing finished, and sightings of a suddenly rampant Russian bear were spotted in venues across town. We're in front at close of play on Thursday, but there's only one gold in it, 17-16, with the Russians leading on silvers and bronzes.
Hold on to your laptops, ladies and gentlemen, this one is going to the wire.
First, the good news: the Australians aren't going to catch us. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport can get that GB vest in the post to Aussie sports minister Kate Ellis now.
And, to paraphrase the great Barry Davies, where are the Germans? Frankly, who cares? At least they turned up, has anybody seen the French?
Having won eight gold medals at the weekend, Team GB chipped in with a cycling gold on Monday, before hitting another four on Tuesday. This took us up to third, a spot on the medal table we haven't seen since 1920. Our best post-WWII finish has been eighth, and that was in 1956. Need I remind anybody that we were 36th in Atlanta, only 12 years ago?
Now the bad news: the Russians are coming. They won three gold medals on Wednesday and three more today - a burst that has taken them from sixth to fourth. We have won one gold medal in the last 48 hours and our six-gold advantage has almost disappeared entirely.
The pedal-powered, oar-propelled, sail-billowing surge that saw us bounding up the ladder past our traditional Olympic betters has petered out. Russia, on the other hand, has started to hit its straps, picking up golds from the Bird's Nest to the Water Cube, and in sports from modern pentathlon to Greco-Roman wrestling.
We came into Thursday evening's session at the athletics having inked in Phillips Idowu's triple jump gold, while hopes were perilously high for something out of the ordinary from the likes of Martyn Rooney and Goldie Sayers. All three performed admirably, and can go home with thoughts of London 2012 in the heads, but only Idowu has a medal and it's not gold.
Raised expectations are a bugger, aren't they? Perhaps we all got a bit giddy up there. Suddenly, all reasonable medal chances were nailed-on golds and the Americans were in our sights.
The last two days, however, have seen a growing realisation that we need to hold what we have, convert every serious medal prospect and hope the Russians come a cropper in the women's handball. Who would have thought we would ever be looking for a result there? Get in there Gro, is all I can say.
But that's enough negativity; let's get back on the good foot with more gold. And for that we must look to the good doctor Tim Brabants in the men's 1,000m kayak race, Crewe's 19-year-old BMX bullet Shanaze Reade, our three remaining boxers, our two female modern pentathletes or Taekwondo star Sarah Stevenson. There are silvers and bronzes for others to shoot for but those eight represent are best hopes of adding to our 17 golds.
Because Russia will win at least a couple more golds. They've got three decent boxers of their own, the aforementioned handball team, some good canoe/kayak hopes and more to come in track and field.
All that said, whatever the outcome, these have been remarkable Games for the British team. Beijing was supposed to be a "staging post" towards the real "stretch target" of fourth in the medal table in London.
Coming into these Games, I thought seventh in the table would be a great result and eighth more likely, particularly after a few injury knocks to key performers. I now can't see us finishing worse than fourth, which means that 2012 target will need to be stretched further.
So hats off to two men who saw Britannia's rise: United States Olympic Committee chief of sport Steve Roush and former head of the Italian Olympic Committee Luciano Barra. Both men tipped us for fourth. Barra, however, also tipped the US to thrash the Chinese in the medal table, he got that wrong.
An expert who called that one more correctly is Sheffield Hallam University professor Simon Shibli. He predicted China would win at least 46 gold medals and top the table. They've already met the first half of that tip and will undoubtedly manage the second.
These have been disappointing Olympics for the mighty US team. If it wasn't for the continued prowess of their swimming programme that second spot really might still be in play.
As I write this, the Americans have actually enjoyed one of their better days.
They continue to progress towards double basketball success, their women's football team just beat Brazil in extra-time for the gold, their women's beach volleyball pair defended their title against the hosts and their women's indoor volleyball team will also meet Brazil in the final. You can probably add to that list a softball gold and the men's baseball, beach volleyball and indoor volleyball teams are all still in the hunt.
It is in the more periphery events that they have been routed by the Chinese. If anything, the hosts have got better in their traditional strengths of badminton, diving, gymnastics and table tennis, and they have destroyed the Americans at the shooting and weightlifting. In these six sports alone, the Chinese lead the US 34-6 in gold medals.
And any American hopes they would claw that back on the track have been irreparably damaged by a Lightning Bolt.
No, the race for gold in Beijing has been settled already, only the scrap for bronze remains to be decided. Come on GB!
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