By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Rule Britannia? Try cruel Britannia.
An unrepentant ex-doper from Kazakhstan kissing his gold medal on the queen's front drive was hardly how Brits had imagined Day 1 of their Olympics. Instead of a British champion in cyclist Mark Cavendish, they got Borat without the fun and a lesson in how to lose.
As if they needed one.
The omens for Britain had been so good. Everyone figured Cavendish — a.k.a "the Manx Missile," on account of his ungodly speed in the finishing straight — as a sure thing. Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, came to give Cavendish a royal send-off. The world champion also had Bradley Wiggins in his corner, ready to repay one good turn with another after Cavendish helped the rider now universally known across these isles as "Wiggo" (soon to be Sir Wiggo?) become the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
"Cav," the thinking went, would get Britain's first gold of 2012 — hopefully, the first of many.
Only hours earlier, director Danny Boyle had made maximum use of his license to thrill and ensured everyone had a gas, gas, gas at the opening ceremony. If Cavendish could then follow James Bond and the rock of the Rolling Stones by kick-starting Britain's medal count, then London 2012 would be off to the best possible beginning. IOC President Jacques Rogge himself had said beforehand how important an early British medal would be to the mood and atmosphere of the London games.
But what's that phrase about best laid plans going awry? Alexander Vinokourov had it memorized. Wiggo huffed, puffed and gave his all, as did Cav's three other teammates in their Team GB jerseys, as they guided and pulled him across the English countryside. They'd hoped to maneuver their human rocket into a sprint finish on The Mall, the road that leads to Queen Elizabeth II's rather large pad. But Vinokourov shot off too far ahead to be caught.
Britain agonized long and hard before these games about whether its own ex-doper cyclist, David Millar, deserved a spot on Team GB. After strong-arming from the World Anti-Doping Agency and sport's highest court, which ruled that Millar and other Britons who served doping bans can't be barred from the games for life, British Olympic officials held their nose and let him in.
Kazakhstan, as far as we know, had no qualms fielding Vinokourov. Unlike Millar, now an ardent and eloquent campaigner against doping, he's never been keen to come clean about his past, the blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France and his subsequent two-year ban. Nor was he about to start now, not after the Grand Duke of Luxembourg hung the gold medal around his neck on the top step of the podium set against the backdrop of Buckingham Palace.
"I've turned the page on 2007. I've shown and proved to everyone that Vino is still here," he said. "Today is not the day to talk of that."
Just because Vino says so doesn't actually make it so. Still, American rider Chris Horner said Vinokourov has served his time, "done the same drug tests all of us have done" and should be cut some slack.
"I haven't seen anything out of him that tells me that he's still doing anything sketchy," Horner said. "Those are the rules and that's the way it is. It's crazy to think that those are the rules and you come back and then all of a sudden everybody still wants to hang you."
Well, not exactly. But a "sorry" from Vinokourov would have been good. Millar's readiness to address his doping, why and how he started and his subsequent repentance, has made it easier to forgive him.
But, hey, that's sports. Win some, lose some, sometimes to people who don't feel quite right. As the British say, on T-shirts and tea mugs, Keep Calm and Carry On. There will be medals aplenty for Team GB in the two weeks ahead.
Plus, it wasn't all negative. The monster crowds — pre-race estimates of about 1 million looked on the mark — that lined the 250-kilometer route Saturday from the British capital through rolling countryside and back again had a jamboree, at least until Cavendish proved the streets of London aren't paved with gold.
If their enthusiasm is a foretaste of things to come, Rogge has nothing to worry about. The landmarks of London — the queen's palace, the royal guards in the bearskin hats whose band regaled the crowds with the James Bond theme and music from "Chariots of Fire," the lush parks — provide pathos and stunning images. Even without gold from Cav, one felt London 2012 will still be quite a party.
"Exceptional. Even at the Tour de France, I've rarely seen so many people," French rider Sylvain Chavanel said.
"Insane," Horner said, "but to a degree that it was just absolutely, probably, the most dangerous and crazy race I've done, for sure."
And besides, it's not as if Brits don't know how to lose. Learning how to laugh off defeat is practically the only way to stay sane for a country that invented modern football but hasn't won the World Cup since 1966, and hasn't seen a British man win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.
Richard Jones, a Londoner who hustled over to Buckingham Palace, got the tone just right when Cav didn't deliver.
"I was there when he didn't win it!" he yelled.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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