Belfast and the Exhibition of its Most Famous Legacy

  Titanic Belfast - the world's largest attraction dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner. Image Credit:  William Murphy  via  Flickr   CC

Titanic Belfast - the world's largest attraction dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner. Image Credit: William Murphy via Flickr CC

     If London was the first UK city I had known about, then Belfast was the second one thanks to its notoriety as the birthplace of the RMS Titanic, which has been a long-time interest of mine and remains a significant part of Belfast’s story.

     That story has been a long and complex one which begins with the settlement of the area in the northeast corner of Ireland during the Bronze and Iron ages, out of which still remain a 5,000 year old henge (older than the more notable Stonehenge in Wiltshire) known as Giant’s Ring and a couple of fort hills. Belfast became substantially established in the 17th Century during the migration of English and Scottish settlers, and the city was granted borough status by James VI & I in 1613. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast grew rapidly and went through a series of expansions to straddle between County Down and County Antrim as it became a thriving industrialized and commercial city with wealth generated through linen, rope-making, tobacco, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding – most significantly Harland and Wolff’s, which was one of the largest shipyards in the world.

     Belfast gained city status under Queen Victoria in 1888 and continued to prosper, but became politically divided over the issue of Irish Home Rule and eventually became the capital of Northern Ireland when Ireland was partitioned and the six counties of Northern Ireland elected to remain part of the United Kingdom. Within the city, there has been sectarian tension between its unionist/loyalist (usually Protestant) and nationalist/republican (usually Catholic) communities. This grew into a civil conflict known as “the Troubles” from 1969 to 1998 and resulted in the violent deaths of over 1,600 people, which combined with the decline of industry following World War II, saw the city suffer economically.

     The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided the political basis for ending the vast majority of the violence and since then, Belfast has largely moved forward in peace. As well as being the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, Belfast is the second-largest city on the island of Ireland and the 10th-12th largest city in the United Kingdom. It is a center for higher education, business, industry, arts, and tourism, and its central area has undergone expansion and regeneration, so that it has achieved growth and is the economic engine of Northern Ireland.

     Part of that regeneration has come in the form of Titanic Quarter, an area of land located just to the east of the city center on Queen’s Island which once belonged to Harland & Wolff and home to the facilities which produced the Titanic and other vessels of the White Star Line. All but derelict by the end of the 20th Century, it has been transformed over the last decade into a mixed-use development at the center of which is Titanic Belfast. Opened in 2012 and visited by Her Majesty the Queen for the Titanic centennial (and her Diamond Jubilee), it not only stands as the largest Titanic-themed attraction in the world, but also as a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage. The exterior takes on the appearance of the angled prows of ships in a nod to the great liners built there and is mostly clad in aluminum shards, so that it looks – interestingly enough – like an iceberg.

  The expansive Main Atrium of Titanic Belfast. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

The expansive Main Atrium of Titanic Belfast. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Stepping into the main atrium of the structure (which is home to Ireland’s longest freespan escalator at over 80 feet long), this heritage is commemorated with a compass on the floor around which are lines from Thomas Garnduff’s 1924 poem, Songs from the Shipyard. Indeed, it feels as like stepping into another world – when shipbuilding and heavy industry was king, this is also visibly seen with a 60 foot wall of rusted steel plates like the ones used for Titanic, as well as the names of all the vessels built by Harland and Wolff across from it. There's also a platform overlooking the atrium which mimics the Titanic's prow and may therefore provide for a Jack and Rose moment.

     From here, one can start a journey through the main exhibition, which is the Titanic Belfast Experience and features nine interpretive and interactive galleries telling the story of the Titanic, her sister’s Olympic and Britannic (collectively called the Olympic-class ships), and the city and shipyard which built them.

  Harland & Wolff gates and White Star Line posters greet visitors as they begin the Titanic Experience with  Boomtown Belfast . Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Harland & Wolff gates and White Star Line posters greet visitors as they begin the Titanic Experience with Boomtown Belfast. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     The first gallery is Boomtown Belfast, which gives visitors the atmosphere of Belfast at the turn of the 20th Century as a city of industrial prosperity and political tension. Through an original set of Harland & Wolff gates are interactive maps and scale models of the Titanic, as well as a game to see how many rivets can be “fit” in 30 seconds. This leads to gallery two in the form of The Shipyard, where one is immersed into the sights, sounds, and even smells of the construction of Olympic and Titanic.

  Scale replica sections of  Titanic's  bow and rudder, as well as the Arrol Gantry as part of  The Shipyard  gallery. Image Credit: All Titanic Belfast ( Left ,  Top Right , and  Lower Right ) via  Flickr     CC ; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

Scale replica sections of Titanic's bow and rudder, as well as the Arrol Gantry as part of The Shipyard gallery. Image Credit: All Titanic Belfast (Left, Top Right, and Lower Right) via Flickr CC; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

     An elevator (or lift, as they were called at the time) carries visitors to the top of a 66-foot scaffold alluding to the Arrol Gantry which aided in the construction of the sister ships, and from here, they are transported via a cart on a ride through other recreated elements of the shipyard, scale replica sections of Titanic’s rudder and bow, as well as photos and motion picture footage depicting what it took to build the biggest ships in the world. Gallery three – The Launch marks the completion of Titanic’s hull and her launching into the River Lagan with a large window showing the finished hull on the slipway before clearing away to show the area as it appears to today.

     With the empty hull in the water, visitors move on to the fourth gallery, called The Fit-Out, which features the great vessel going through her final stages of construction as she is fitted out to become a luxury liner. There are examples of cabins from each class, a scale model of the ship, information panels and large pictures of the interiors, and most impressively, a 360-degree CGI tour of the ship – going through seven levels from the engine room to the navigation bridge (seen in the above video). This leads to experiencing life aboard the ship itself in the fifth gallery – The Maiden Voyage. Here, visitors can walk on the deck, have a seat on a bench, and take in the views of Belfast Harbour while also viewing the famous photos taken by Father Francis Browne aboard the ship during his overnight passage on the first leg of the voyage from Southampton to Queenstown (now Cobh) via Cherbourg, France.

  Gallery featuring Father Browne's collection of photos and deck benches with views of the harbor and atrium, as if on  Titanic  herself. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast ( Top Left  and  Bottom Right ) via  Flickr   CC

Gallery featuring Father Browne's collection of photos and deck benches with views of the harbor and atrium, as if on Titanic herself. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast (Top Left and Bottom Right) via Flickr CC

     Of course, the happiness and good feeling doesn’t last as Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic with a great loss of life. For this, galley six – The Sinking features a cold room and simulated water to immerse the visitor into the conditions experienced by the Titanic and the souls aboard her that night in 1912. The beeping Morse Code signals carrying Titanic’s distress call in form of CQD and SOS are heard, as well as audio from survivors giving their gripping accounts of the unfolding disaster, accompanied by the images of the great liner foundering.

  Graphic novel-like depiction of the sinking  Titanic . Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Graphic novel-like depiction of the sinking Titanic. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Also depicted is the confusion and contradictory reporting reports in the media during the early hours following the sinking. This leads into the seventh gallery of The Aftermath, where there is a full-sized replica lifeboat on which a large double-sided television screen displays the portrayals of the American and British inquiries into the disaster. There are also interactive tablets allowing people to search a database and see if they had a relative on board, as well as information on Harland and Wolff to the present day and careers of Titanic’s sister ships.

  The Aftermath Gallery featuring a replica lifeboat and representation of the present-day Harland and Wolff gantry cranes. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

The Aftermath Gallery featuring a replica lifeboat and representation of the present-day Harland and Wolff gantry cranes. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Following this, the Myths and Legends section in gallery eight deals with Titanic in popular culture, including books, plays, poems, films, songs, and other media that have been inspired by the ship for over a century. Clips and excerpts from these are featured, along with various Titanic memorabilia as Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On plays in the background. There are also more interactive tablets, this time providing answers to long-standing myths surrounding the Titanic.

  Myths and Legends meet reality as  Titanic  appears on various Media. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Myths and Legends meet reality as Titanic appears on various Media. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     The ninth and final gallery is Titanic Beneath, which brings Titanic’s story up to the present with the discovery of her wreck by Dr. Robert Ballard, and a video about the discovery and exploration of the wreck is available for viewing in an experience made to feeling as though the visitor is underwater. Further on is a glass floor revealing a mosaic of the Titanic floating underneath as she appears today on the ocean floor, as well as more information of the wreck and the debris around it.

  Looking two-and-a-half miles "down" to the  Titanic's  final resting place in the ninth gallery of the Titanic Belfast Experience. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Looking two-and-a-half miles "down" to the Titanic's final resting place in the ninth gallery of the Titanic Belfast Experience. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Under this is the Ocean Exploration Centre, which features additional experiences with regard to Titanic as well as an educational facility drawing on expertise and resources from local universities, with a marine biologist on hand and a focus on the waters of Northern Ireland and images from Dr. Ballard’s expeditions throughout the world in the hope that Titanic may spawn interest in this area of study for future generations.

  The Ocean Exploration Centre. Image Credit: all Titanic Belfast (  Top Left ,  Top Middle ,  Top Right ,  Bottom Left , and  Bottom Right ) Via  Flickr   CC ; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

The Ocean Exploration Centre. Image Credit: all Titanic Belfast ( Top Left, Top Middle, Top Right, Bottom Left, and Bottom Right) Via Flickr CC; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

     This whole experience can be done in 2-3 hours, though Titanic aficionados may naturally spend more time. In addition to the main exhibition, the building also features gift shops with Titanic memorabilia (including plates with the White Star Line logo), places to eat, and areas for booking events such as conferences and receptions – including a room featuring a stylized replica of the Grand Staircase. In the greater expanse of Titanic Quarter, there are the slipways on which Titanic and her sister’s were built – which have been turned into a nice walking plaza, the SS Nomadic – the last White Star liner and one of the tenders which serviced Titanic at Cherbourg, the Drawing Offices where the vessels were designed, Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones is filmed), the Thompson Graving Dock, which was built to accommodate Titanic for dry-docking purposes, and nearby are the modern-day facilities of Harland and Wolff – dominated by the yellow gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath. Furthermore, within the the plaza which surrounds the Titanic Belfast building, there is a large map of the Northern Hemisphere which shows Titanic's maiden voyage track and features benches which form a Morse Code sequence which reads: “DE (this is) MGY MGY MGY (Titanic’s call sign) CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD (the distress calls radioed from the ship)”.

  Aerial view of Titanic Belfast, with the slipways ( Olympic's  on the right and  Titanic's  on the left) above it and the Drawing Offices to the Right. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Aerial view of Titanic Belfast, with the slipways (Olympic's on the right and Titanic's on the left) above it and the Drawing Offices to the Right. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Titanic Belfast is open year-around save for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 24-26) and times vary depending on the season. Tickets can be purchased for the main exhibition experience alone or for the Titanic Discovery Tour, a walking tour of the slipways, Drawing Offices, and other features in the immediate area of Titanic Belfast. Visitors can also join in special events for afternoon tea and Christmas. There's also the White Star Premium Pass to access the main experience, the Discovery Tour, and the Nomadic, which ought to make make for an exciting, educational, and memorable experience.

     For Belfast and its citizens, a memorable experience is exactly what they want visitors to have as the city strives to march forward confidently into the future. What’s remarkable is that until fairly recently, Titanic was not embraced so much by the city, for it was considered a mark of shame to have built a vessel that sank on its only voyage less than a fortnight after leaving her birthplace. With the discovery of the wreck and further confirmation that Titanic was a liner of sound workmanship, the city has done more to promote its connection to her, which has led to a cheeky saying that “she was fine when she left.” The popularity of James Cameron’s 1997 film helped bring Titanic to a new generation, as well as increased interest in Belfast, so that Titanic Belfast is in many ways, the culmination of the city’s reconnection with and pride in its most famous product, as well as sign of its renewal and regeneration. This reached new levels of success this year with the attraction welcoming its three millionth visitors and being named the Leading Visitor Attraction in Europe by the prestigious World Travel Awards – the “Tourism Oscars” – and seeing off competition such as the Eiffel Tower. Through Titanic, Belfast is indeed continuing to build for itself a positive reputation and showing that it is turning a corner in its long and layered history.

  Grand View of the River Lagan, Belfast Harbour, the city itself and beyond. At Left are the gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff,  Samson  and  Goliath ; below them is the Thompson Graving Dock, were  Titanic  was partly fitted out; to the right is Titanic Studios in the large brown building, and further over is Titanic Belfast and the slipways. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   cc

Grand View of the River Lagan, Belfast Harbour, the city itself and beyond. At Left are the gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff, Samson and Goliath; below them is the Thompson Graving Dock, were Titanic was partly fitted out; to the right is Titanic Studios in the large brown building, and further over is Titanic Belfast and the slipways. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

See more photos of Titanic Belfast on its Flickr account here and here.

Manchester and Its Elegant Town Hall

It has always been my intention to have this blog go beyond politics, the constitution, and current affairs to also focus on exploring these pieces of rock, these collection of islands known as the United Kingdom – the places, the people, the history, the culture, and everything else which make this country what it is and has shaped my view of it. This has already been done with articles about the holidays for the patron saints of the UK, the Titanic and Belfast, the Pilots of the Caribbean, British accents, April Fool’s Day, the NFL in Britain, symbols of the UK, Britain at the Olympics, among other topics.

So for this post, I’ll be looking at one of Britain’s great cities – Manchester, and with a focus on one of its most noted features, its Town Hall.

  Manchester Town Hall. Image Credit:  Robert Cutts  via  Flickr   CC

Manchester Town Hall. Image Credit: Robert Cutts via Flickr CC

     Located in North West England, Manchester has a storied history beginning with the ancient Celtic tribes who settled there, followed by the Romans, who built a fort named Mancunium, which in turn became the basis for city’s current name. As early as the 14th Century when it gained a town charter, Manchester became a center for the manufacturing and trade of linen; from here, the city grew rapidly as trade expanded with new and better ways of transportation. The Industrial Revolution brought about major technological advances which vastly increased linen production and Manchester became the world’s first industrialized city, encompassing parts of both the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire; it also earned the nicknames “Cottonopolis” and “Warehouse City” for being the Mecca of cotton processing and linen manufacturing during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Heavy industry in general went on a steep decline following World War II and the city along with it through the 1980’s and it was the victim of a substantial Provisional IRA attack in 1996, which heavily damaged parts of the city center. Since then however, Manchester has undergone an extensive regeneration to become a hub for business and financial services, media, advanced manufacturing, and tourism, as well as competing with Birmingham for the title of the UK’s second city.

     As would befit a city seeking such a status, it has a beautiful town hall located at its center. Completed in 1877 and designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the Manchester Town Hall is a study in Victorian Gothic revival architecture and its purpose was to show that Manchester had arrived to be a city of wealth and importance – almost on par with London – during its heyday as the world’s cotton and linen powerhouse, having been elevated to city status in 1853. Even today, it takes on an elegant appearance which is pleasing to the eye and makes a lasting impression that there is indeed, much more to the UK than just the capital city.

     The exterior of this historic building is highlighted by the clock tower which rises 280 feet from the ground atop the main entrance, which faces Albert Square and a monument to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. It is the sixth-tallest building in Manchester and his topped by a spiky golden globe, which symbolizes Manchester’s empire made in cotton. Within it are contained a bevy of bells, including Great Abel – the city’s answer to Big Ben and named for Abel Heywood, the Mayor of Manchester who had championed the hall – which weighs eight tons and strikes on the hour. From the top are extraordinary views of the city and the surrounding area.

     On the inside are lavishly decorated corridors, hallways, staircases, and rooms filled with stone and other materials from throughout the United Kingdom which are filled with symbolism relating to Manchester, its trade and commerce, its people, and its civic organizations. Of note are two special areas which aside from the clock tower are a must-see for any visit to the building: the Sculpture Hall and the Great Hall.

  The Great Hall with its expansive space, ceiling panels, organ, and murals on Mancunian history. Image Credit:  Tom Page  via  Flickr   cc

The Great Hall with its expansive space, ceiling panels, organ, and murals on Mancunian history. Image Credit: Tom Page via Flickr cc

     The Sculpture Hall is named so because it contains the statues and busts of people who made contributions to Manchester, including anti-Corn Law campaigners Richard Cobden and John Bright, music conductors Charles Halle and Sir John Barbirolli, and scientists John Dalton and James Joule. Located on the ground floor, it is also home to a café which invites visitors to “indulge in a menu inspired by the North West” and is convenient for anybody with an appetite worked up by touring other areas of the building, and indeed, the city itself.

     From the ground floor, there are a set of elegant spiral stairs which lead up to a landing known as the Bees Area, which has a floor patterned with bees and cotton and a glazed skylight on which the names of the mayors, lord mayors, and chairs of the city council are inscribed. This then leads the Great Hall, which measures 100 feet tall by 50 feet wide and features an organ along with the famous Manchester Murals by Ford Madox Brown which depicts scenes from throughout the city’s history. Above them are large arched windows permitting natural light to flow into the large space and along the ceiling are a series of panels with the coat of arms of countries and towns which had traded with Manchester.

     This room bears a close resemblance to Westminster Hall, and indeed, the whole Town Hall gives an appearance reminiscent of the interiors and exteriors of the Palace of Westminster, which is why the building has been used as a filming location for television and film, including Sherlock Holmes and The Iron Lady. It is also used for various private engagements, such as wedding ceremonies, conferences, and other events, and there are several other well-appointed rooms that are used for these purposes, including the Lord Mayor's Parlour, Conference Hall, Banqueting Room, Reception Room, Small Ante Room, and three conference rooms. In fact, the city council now mostly meets in the Town Hall Extension across Lloyd Street, which was built in the 1930’s.

  One of the breathtakingly beautiful conference halls at Manchester Town Hall. Image Credit:  Michael D. Beckwith  via  Flickr ;  Public Domain

One of the breathtakingly beautiful conference halls at Manchester Town Hall. Image Credit: Michael D. Beckwith via Flickr; Public Domain

     Tours of the Town Hall are available via external tour companies such as New Manchester Walks, which offers guided tours through the building, including specific ones for extensive viewing of the murals and going up to the top of the clock tower. Unfortunately, tours for the clock tower have been suspended for at least this year due to repairs, but the other areas are still available, both in a general tour of the building and one focused on the Madox Murals. As the building is booked for private functions, it is advisable to check New Manchester Walks for date and time availability, as well as to email them to notify them of your attendance on a certain day and to obtain the latest information and prices.

     The Town Hall is only one feature to see in Manchester, but it offers a foundation for experiencing one of the great cities of the United Kingdom, and anybody who visits it will be in for a treat they will not forget.

Rio 2016 and a Salute to Team GB

  Andy Murray leading Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland into Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony for Rio 2016. Image Source:  Agência Brasil  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

Andy Murray leading Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland into Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony for Rio 2016. Image Source: Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons cc

     Four years ago at the conclusion of the Summer Olympic Games in London, Team GB exceeded all expectations as it won 65 medals, including 29 of them gold and finished number three on the medal table in its best Olympic performance since 1908, when it won a whopping 146 medals (56 gold) while hosting the Games for the first time and finished at the top of the medal table for the first and only time in its history.

     It was all so brilliant as we watched the United Kingdom’s great athletes perform brilliantly and achieve so much for themselves and their country as the host nation in that golden summer, which was made all the more special because it occurred during the Diamond Jubilee year of Her Majesty the Queen, who memorably “parachuted” into Olympic Stadium with James Bond during that spectacular opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle.

     For my part, I watched that ceremony and much of the Games with much interest because of the fact that is was being held in the UK and because of the potential for phenomenal sporting success for the country I had come to love and appreciate over the years. Of course, I was all for Team USA and cheering them on with gusto, but whenever Team GB was not in competition with us, I was rooting for them to win. That summer, I was not disappointed, and nor were the British people, who came together as one and poured out their tremendous support for the home team and helped to motivate them to a stunning performance which impressed many people and hopefully inspired a generation.

     And yet, as impressive as the 2012 medal haul and sporting performance was, expectations were kept in check for the Summer Games this year – not least because they were being held away from the UK, in Rio de Janeiro. On a personal level, I believed that while Team GB would do well enough to get at least 50 or so medals and therefore exceed its last away Games medal tally of 47 (19 gold) at Beijing 2008, they would probably not replicate the London accomplishment. UK Sport, which distributes government and lottery money to various sporting disciplines and individuals for the development of British athletic talent, set more modest expectations by having a target of 48 medals.

     However, this didn’t appear to dampen the spirits of those participating in the Games themselves as they walked with pride into Olympic Stadium lead by defending tennis champion Andy Murray with the Union Flag in hand. Perhaps they knew that achieving the success from four years previously would be difficult to accomplish away from home, but at the same time, they also had a belief in themselves to accomplish something special and knew that their team had been increasing its medal count in each successive Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, when it finished 36th in the medal count with 15 medals (one gold). Indeed, it was the performance from these Games which caused the government to increase funding for athletics in the UK and culminated in the success of London 2012. Now coming off of that, there was at least some expectation that in Rio, Team GB would have its best overseas performance at a summer Olympic Games, if only by a few medals.

     The first few days of competition were a bit slow, with Britain winning one gold medal via swimmer Adam Peaty in the men’s 100m breaststroke and six overall through strong silver and bronze medal performances in swimming, diving, and shooting. Then on Day 5 – August 10th, Team GB doubled its medal haul with two gold medals earned by Joe Clarke in canoeing and the diving duo of Jack Laugher and Chris Mears in the men’s 3m synchronized springboard (Great Britain’s first-ever diving gold), along with four silver medals in cycling, shooting, judo, and gymnastics. Now with 12 medals (three gold), Team GB broke into the top ten at No. 9 and was doing better than at this point in London by three medals.

     Over days 6-8, the trickle of medals from the first few days turned into a stream as Britain came up strong in some of its core disciplines. In cycling, a team consisting of Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny, and Callum Skinner won gold in the men’s team sprint, as did both the men’s and women’s squads for the team pursuit, which featured Sir Bradley Wiggins, Steven Burke, Ed Clancy, and Owain Doull on the men’s team, and Katie Archibald, Elinor Baker, Joanna Rowsell, and Laura Trott on the women’s team. Meanwhile in rowing, more gold came home as Helen Glover and Heather Stanning defended their London title and took the top position in the women’s coxless pair event on the same day as the men’s coxless four team (Alex Gregory, Constantine Louloudis, George Nash, and Mohamed Sbihi) did the same in their event, followed by a British triumph in the men’s eight race. Additionally, ten silver medals and one bronze medal were awarded in rowing, canoeing, rugby sevens, equestrian, gymnastics, athletics, cycling, and swimming.

     Finishing off this round was probably the most spectacular moment of the Games for Britain as Mo Farah competed to defend his title in the men’s 10,000 meter race, during which he became tangled up with another runner and fell on the track, but quickly got up and soldiered on to win the title once again in his signature “Mobot” style to the rapture of the enormous crowd in attendance.

     Day 9 came around on August 14th, and it was here where Britain struck gold in a big way and proved itself worthy among its competitors as a host of individuals massively added to the growing haul.

     Gymnast Max Whitlock earned two gold medals during the men’s floor and pommel horse events (the first Olympic gold’s for Great Britain in gymnastics and the first same-day double gold since Hugh Edwards in 1932), and Justin Rose became the first golfer to win gold in 112 years following the absence of an Olympic golf tournament during that time period. In cycling, Jason Kenny topped the competition during the men’s sprint event and Andy Murray successfully defended his London title to become the first person to win back-to-back Olympic gold in individual tennis. Three more silver medals were won in sailing, gymnastics, and cycling on this day which became known as “Super Sunday” (in reference to the “Super Saturday” four years ago) and marked the point when Team GB – having added eight medals in total – leaped into second place in the medal standings between the United States and China.

     Over the next two days, another 12 medals were added, including four gold’s from equestrian Charlotte Dujardin defending her 2012 title in individual dressage, sailor Giles Scott in the men’s finn race (extending a Team GB winning streak started by Iain Percy in Sydney 2000), and cycling couple Laura Trott and Jason Kenny in the women’s omnium and men’s keirin, respectively. More silver and bronze medals were earned in boxing, gymnastics, cycling, athletics, and diving during those days as well when Team GB smashed its pre-Games target of 48 medals and therefore exceeded its tally at Beijing.

  Jade Jones (second from left) alongside her fellow medalists after defending her taekwondo title in the women's 57kg. Image Source:  Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Tasnim News Agency  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

Jade Jones (second from left) alongside her fellow medalists after defending her taekwondo title in the women's 57kg. Image Source: Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons CC

     This was followed by a no-medals day, but for the final days of competition, Team GB was a medal-winning machine. Alistair Brownlee finished the men’s triathlon with gold, followed by Saskia Clark and Hannah Mills doing the same in the women’s 470 for sailing, Jade Jones defending her title in the women's 57kg for taekwondo and equestrian Nick Skelton came on top in the individual show jumping event. The women’s field hockey team triumphed over the Netherlands to win gold in their sport, along with Liam Heath in canoeing, Nicola Adams in boxing, and Mo Farah finishing out the gold rush by defending his 5000 meter racing title and therefore winning a double-double by defending two titles. Another nine silver and bronze medals were won, including the one bronze impressively earned by the women’s athletics team (Eilidh Doyle, Anyika Onuora, Emily Diamond and Christine Ohuruogu) for the 4X400 meter track relay on August 20th, which took Team GB across its London medal haul of 65, and one silver earned by Joseph Joyce the next day in men’s super heavyweight boxing, which was Team GB’s last Rio medal and brought its final medal tally to 67 – 27 gold, 23 silver, and 17 bronze.

     So Team GB did not replicate their London success; they exceeded it, and in supreme fashion.

     In terms of statistics, the story of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at Rio 2016 is one of exceptional achievement built upon the successes and hard work of the last 20 years since Atlanta 1996. In 19 out of 31 sports, the team medaled and had athletes standing on the podium – a strike rate of 61%, which increases to 76% when the sports they did not contest are stripped out, but even then, Britain still managed to win a gold medal across 15 sports – more than any other country, including the United States, though it won more medals overall in 22 sports.

  2016 Rio Summer Olympics Medal Table. Image Credit: Screenshot from the BBC

2016 Rio Summer Olympics Medal Table. Image Credit: Screenshot from the BBC

     In 23 of the 25 sports it participated in, Team GB met or exceeded its medal targets and nine Olympians successfully defended their titles from 2012. Cycling was easily Britain’s most dominant sport with 12 medals won and all 15 members of the track cycling team winning a medal. Here, Jason Kenny became the most successful Briton in Rio, winning three gold’s; his fellow cyclist and fiancée Laura Trott became the most successful British female Olympian in Rio upon taking two gold’s. In both the men’s team pursuit and the men’s team sprint, the track cyclists made it three straight titles for Great Britain. Sir Bradley Wiggins emerged from Rio with eight medals in total throughout his Olympic career, making him the first Briton to do so, and veteran Mark Cavendish won his first-ever medal at these Games.

     Outside of cycling, rowers won their fifth consecutive title in the men’s four and in rowing overall, Team GB topped the standings with three gold medals. Rower Katherine Grainger became the first British woman to win medals at five consecutive games upon winning silver in women’s double sculls and Jessica Ennis-Hill put up a strong performance to finish with a silver in the heptathlon, and even though they came up short defending their London titles, they still represent some of the finest that Britain has to offer and are still winners in many ways. Indeed, Britain was so good in some events, it won multiple medals in the same event, such as when Jonathan Brownlee won silver in the men’s triathlon to follow his gold medal-winning brother, Alistair.

     Other significant achievements were that of gymnast Amy Tinkler winning bronze in the women’s floor exercise as Britain’s youngest Rio Olympian, who at the age of 16, was born at around the same time as when Britain’s oldest Rio Olympian, equestrian Nick Skelton, had broken his neck and went into temporary retirement before winning his first gold this year. Additionally, Bryony Page took silver in trampoline gymnastics and Sophie Hitchon did the same in the hammer throw – becoming the first Britons to do so in those events, and with respect to gymnastics overall, Great Britain came third behind the US and Russia.

     Indeed, far from experiencing a post-2012 dip, Britain became the first country to increase its Olympic medal haul immediately following the summer Games it hosted, it became the second of two nations (Azerbaijan being the other) to consecutively increase the number of medals earned through five Games, and remains the only country to have won gold at every summer Olympics since the inception of the modern Games in 1896.

     This was an astonishing feat by itself, but what made it greater was the fact that with 27 gold medals, Great Britain finished in second place on the medal table, ahead of China, which has grown into be an Olympic powerhouse since its return to the Games in 1984 and topped the medal table when it hosted the Beijing Games in 2008. When Britain did jump to second place and overtook China on August 14th, it was met with a mixture of celebration, amusement, and surprise; many people – even those counted among the biggest Team GB fans – couldn’t believe what had happened and had very reason to believe that China would come back to take second place by the end of the games, after it was expected to win several medals in key areas, such as badminton and table tennis.

     However, as far as I could see, the UK got out in front of China and did not look back – never surrendering the second place spot for the remainder of the Games as China finished with one gold medal less and wound up in third place. Despite having more medals overall at 70 to Britain’s 67, the International Olympic Committee orders medals based on number of gold, silver, and bronze medals, with gold taking first precedence before the others. In fact, Team GB actually had two gold medals less than they did in London, but China had an even steeper dip in its medal count and this helped to upend almost all projections for it going into the Games and placing Britain on top of it. In short, Britain overperformed, China underperformed, and this paved the way for Britain’s most successful non-boycotted Olympics in over a century and may mark its ascension to being a sporting powerhouse in its own right.

  Tracking the gold medals for the top five Rio 2016 countries. Image Source:  Ali Zifan  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

Tracking the gold medals for the top five Rio 2016 countries. Image Source: Ali Zifan via Wikimedia Commons CC

     What was amusing about this development was the response from the Chinese state media, with the English-language Twitter account of the state news agency Xinhua sending out an agitated tweet which said: “You’re kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to.” That was deleted, but another tweet vented frustration toward the gymnastics team, saying that they had “suffered the worst Olympic flop.” One person in the CCTV comments section wrote that while he understood that China could not topple the United States, he appeared rankled at the prospect of having to compete with the United Kingdom for second place. Still yet, another state commentator bemoaned in disbelief that their country had fallen behind “a small island country troubled by separatism.”

     However, this attitude was balanced by other voices in the media and public which appeared to be more gracious and even relaxed, with one article in the Global Times suggesting that most people were “unfazed by the sluggish medal winning” and quoted a Beijing sports sociology doctor who said that ‘the time in which we relied on sports to show our strength or prove our reputation is over.’

     That’s a decent attitude to have because after all, the Olympics comes down so often to individual achievement and initiative, because for all the support provided by the government, it is the individual who must decide to put in the time and effort to simply start riding a bike, get in a pool, do some back flips, run some laps, among other things, and for many people, making it to the Games is an achievement by itself and the medals are just the icing on the cake.

     That being said, there is nothing wrong with having patriotic pride in ones national team at the Olympics, so long as it’s not done for reasons of claiming some sort of natural (and race-based) supremacy or looking down on other countries as inherently inferior. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with this in general for much the same reasons, but as we saw with some in Chinese media and public, there was incredulity at the idea of the UK overtaking them in the medal table and references to a “small island country” are reminiscent of an incident at the 2013 G-20 Summit, where a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly dismissed Britain as a “small island no one listens to.”

     Well, Britain is a small island country, but as I have said in a previous post, it is – and has been – a small island with big influence for various reasons extending beyond Olympics success, and this was on display at “British House” during the Rio Games. Located at Parque Lage near the Christ the Redeemer statue, British House functioned as the UK’s official residence in Rio for the Games and served to showcase the UK in terms of its strengths and abilities in business, culture, innovation, music, arts and sciences, sports, and several other areas to those who may be interested in investing in the country and visiting it. This was also a place to be celebrating British Olympic success, where Sir Chris Hoy, fellow former and current Team GB athletes, and others enjoyed themselves as the Games took their course (and it was here where Andy Murray almost poked Princess Anne with the Union Flag during the team photo-op on the steps to the building).

     It was great to see them having a good time, and just as well, to see the host nation was doing well too. Despite all the problems going into the Games, Rio managed to pull off a rather successful Olympics without serious disruption or issues with regard to its preparedness, and though Brazil sat outside the top ten in the medal count, it did manage to beat both its previous gold and overall medal records. What likely mattered however was having the Games there and watching their best athletes on display on home court. Nowhere was this more evident than in the realm of football (soccer), where Brazilians poured their hearts out for the national team and cheered them on to victory and their first gold medal in that event.

     Meanwhile closer to home, I was very happy to see Team USA perform as well as it did in exemplary fashion – watching the weighty contributions and significant achievements of Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky dominating in the swimming pool, Simone Biles making her mark in gymnastics, Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin on the track, and USA basketball dominating on the hardwood for the third straight time. In terms of medals, I was proud for the USA to have won 121 medals (46 gold, 37 silver, and 38 bronze) – the most ever for non-boycotted Games – topping the medal table again for the second consecutive time and the fifth time in the last six games, while leading in the overall medal tally for the sixth straight time.

  Michael Phelps and other members of the US Men's 4 x 100m freestyle swimming team after winning gold in Rio. Image Source:   Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

Michael Phelps and other members of the US Men's 4 x 100m freestyle swimming team after winning gold in Rio. Image Source:  Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons CC

     However, there was a bit of sadness knowing these would be the last Olympics for the legendary Phelps, who is perhaps the greatest Olympian of all time with an impressive 28 medals (23 gold), as well as for Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, a legend in his own right as the World’s Fastest Man three times in a row. Both men put on spectacular displays and showed a love of country, but within the spirit of good sportsmanship (as seen when Bolt paused an interview during the London Games for the US national anthem), which is the Olympic ideal in many ways.

     Rio 2016 was quite special as an American for what we achieved there, but I also enjoyed watching other countries do very well, especially my second country. Yes, it has been going through a lot – internal and external – over the past few years, but that did not stop it from putting on the very successful London Games and exceeding expectations in the competition. For that matter, we’ve got our own issues in the US that we’re dealing with, but that didn’t stop us from participating in and engaging with these Games. If anything, the Games are an opportunity to shine a bit of color, light, and relief in an increasingly complex and stressed world.

     With regard to the UK this year, it put on a fantastic performance via the efforts of its athletes, and I have to believe that it had to have made people proud to be British because of the effort put forth by these Olympians – so much of it backed by the public at home to help realize their dreams – who represented so many different backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities throughout the United Kingdom and came from all parts of it, showing the power of this Union not only of nations, but of people, which of course belongs to all of them.

     Here at Rio was but a sample of the rich and diverse country that is Britain today, and showing what can be achieved when the British people work together and devote their energies in a collectively great civic and patriotic effort - where resources are pooled and shared effectively to make fantastic things happen. This was seen as the athletes expressed a love of country and exhibited the indomitable British spirit, strength, and character, which is not a mark of national supremacy, but rather an attitude and a way of doing things which has seen the country through and beat expectations time and time again, and surely will see it through going forward in Tokyo and beyond.

     So congratulations to Team GB on a job well done and I hope all Britons may be able to take part in an I Am Team GB event on Saturday and attend the parades that are to come, because the achievements of the UK's Olympians and what it took to become one ought to be commemorated in appropriate fashion throughout the land.