Column: Not-So-Great Britain learning to win again

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By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press

Learning to lose used to be as British as warm beer and milky tea. Growing up in Not-So-Great Britain post-1966, when England football fans last had something to really shout about, meant living with rain and the cold, hard fact that the country which invented a host of modern sports more often than not seemed to have become pretty rubbish at them.

Wimbledon, home of the world's oldest tennis tournament, became the place where Britons munched on overpriced strawberries while abdicating the business of winning to overseas players — champions from the United States, Switzerland and elsewhere who served up victory, not heroic failures.

Rugby was a town in the middle of England that lent its name to the game that New Zealand's All Blacks subsequently used to rub English noses, actually everyone's noses, in the dirt.

Cricket, which spread with the British Empire, became a favored Australian method of getting payback on the English who once used their land as a penal colony. Revenge, it turned out, was a dish best served with a hard, leather-wrapped ball in the hands of Shane Warne.

And, with the years, those who could actually remember Geoff Hurst's hat-trick against Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London dwindled in numbers. Because football is England's national game, the decades of disappointment that followed — penalty shoot-out losses to Germany and others; being on the receiving end of Diego Maradona's guile and skills at the 1986 World Cup — did much to create the impression that being British meant being cursed with either bad luck, bad teams or both.

And it was largely, but not wholly, just that — an impression. Because outside of football, there was plenty of British success, like Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill becoming Formula One champions in the 1990s, decathlete Daley Thompson, runner Sebastian Coe, rower Steven Redgrave and many others winning Olympic golds and Jonny Wilkinson's last-gasp drop goal against Australia that secured the rugby World Cup for England in 2003.

Still, in the bronze statue of Fred Perry at Wimbledon, at the home of cricket at Lord's, at Wembley that was demolished and rebuilt, there often seemed to be more reminders of sporting glories past than glories present.

So starved were Britons for international success that they went giddy for the team of Scottish women that won Britain's first Winter Olympics gold medal in 18 years in 2002 in — how embarrassing — the non-sport sport of curling.

And, in 1997, BBC viewers elected Greg Rusedski as their British Sports Personality of the Year, with Tim Henman runner-up. That, even though Rusedski lost the U.S. Open final to Australian Patrick Rafter and Henman's best in the Grand Slams that year was reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals. In lean times, they seemed to be the best Britain could muster.

So Britons can be excused for gorging on their summer of sporting success in 2012 — Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France, Britain placing third on the medal table at the London Olympics with 29 golds, and Andy Murray ending Britain's 76-year wait for a men's Grand Slam tennis champion. July to September has the feel of a deluge after a drought.

The cynical view would be that sporting success comes in cycles and that Britain's fortunes were bound to change eventually.

The more plausible explanation is that there is little or nothing accidental about it.

Wiggins retrained and remodeled himself, shedding weight and morphing from a rider who won six medals in track cycling at three Olympics to one who could scale the Tour's mountains.

Mo Farah, winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in London's Olympic Stadium, moved to the United States for the training he needed to beat Africa's distance runners.

Murray leaned on eight-time major winner Ivan Lendl to straighten his mind and attitude after losing his first four Grand Slam finals. The reward: Olympic gold and the first Slam for a British man since Perry won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1936.

British success this summer has been built on attention to detail and funding. It has been as far removed as possible from the "have a go" bravado of "Eddie the Eagle" Michael Edwards, the British plasterer-turned-ski jumper who flew, barely, at the 1988 Calgary Games with fogged glasses and scant training.

In a YouGov poll of 1,704 Britons in August, a few days before the Olympics closing ceremony, 78 percent said the London Games made them more likely to see themselves as a nation of sporting winners. Chris Hoy, who got two more golds in London to become Britain's most successful Olympian, with six golds total, said Britons had been accustomed to being "plucky losers" but that is "starting to change."

The trick now is to make it last.

The footballers can be counted on to ensure Britain doesn't get swept away in its euphoria.

England played Ukraine at Wembley on Tuesday in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

The score: 1-1.

Down to earth with a bump.

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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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