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Wiggins' victory brings the Games back to the people

By Simon Hooper, for CNN
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 0945 GMT (1745 HKT)
UK cyclist Bradley Wiggins' everyman charm has done much to win over sections of the British public wary of the Olympics.
UK cyclist Bradley Wiggins' everyman charm has done much to win over sections of the British public wary of the Olympics.
  • UK rider Bradley Wiggins' gold has energized the British public, says Simon Hooper
  • Fans are sporting cut-out, stick on fake sideburns in tribute to the cyclist, a self-styled "mod"
  • Hooper says such tributes are a riposte to the "corporate tone" that threatened to alienate fans
  • The British public has embraced the Games following Team GB's golden run

Editor's note: Simon Hooper has worked as a journalist covering international news, politics and sports for websites and publications including CNN, Al Jazeera, the New Statesman and Sports Illustrated.

London (CNN) -- When Olympic officials set about enforcing their crackdown on rogue merchandising prior to the London Games, they could hardly have imagined that the must-have accessory for the sporting spectacle would be a pair of chunky fake sideburns.

Yet the guerrilla tributes to British cyclist Bradley Wiggins have become a celebratory and spontaneous symbol of defiance against the corporate tone that some had feared would douse the Games in blandness and officious pomposity.

Simon Hooper
Simon Hooper

A hair transplant surgeon with an eye for publicity even claimed an upsurge in inquiries from less hirsutely endowed men seeking artificially enhanced "mutton chops" following the bushy-cheeked rider's winning performance in Wednesday's time trial to earn the fourth gold medal of his Olympic career.

In the fiercely conformist world of professional sport, Wiggins, a self-styled mod, has always cut an idiosyncratic figure, discreetly customizing his Team GB cycling helmet and bike with the Royal Air Force roundel co-opted by The Who as a symbol of the musical subculture in the 1960s.

But, like a breakthrough band suddenly finding itself appreciated by a mainstream audience, the Londoner's serendipitous success in his own city, coming just days after he became the first ever Briton to ride up Paris' Champs-Elysees in the Tour de France winner's yellow jersey, has seen him transformed from respected niche sportsman into "Wiggo," the people's champion and a cult phenomenon.

Importantly also for London, Wiggins' triumph provided a sporting counterpoint as memorable as Danny Boyle's opening ceremony, which had celebrated homegrown diversity, creativity and self-confidence with an intelligence, irreverence and humanity that set a distinctly British tone in contrast to the shock-and-awe spectacular of Beijing four years ago.

Despite Boyle's widely acclaimed efforts, for many skeptical Londoners the Olympics had seemed in danger of blazing and fizzling like the obligatory fireworks of the opening and closing proceedings.

Public disgruntlement over rising costs and the appeasement of sponsors, predictions of apocalyptic travel chaos, the deployment of rocket launchers on residential rooftops and security failings which even the head of G4S, the company responsible, agreed had been a "humiliating shambles," had preceded the Games.

Once under way, television footage of rows of empty seats at venues long assumed by home fans to be sold out had threatened to become a defining narrative that distracted from the events themselves.

But Wiggins' winning ride, coming amid a two-day flurry of British medals on the water and in the saddle, appeared to be the moment when London and the wider nation decided to stop worrying and enjoy the party for which they were, after all, footing the bill. "Phew!" said the Guardian newspaper, summing up the shift in mood in one word on its front page.

The real fans are outside the gates
Gold medal-winning Olympic cyclist Bradley Wiggins

Cycling once reputedly inspired HG Wells, the celebrated English science fiction novelist, to remark: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race."

Rolling through the suburban Surrey landscape where Wells imagined the Martian invasion of Victorian England in "The War of the Worlds," Wiggins and the cheering masses who lined his route seemed to offer a more inclusive riposte to the locked-down Olympic Park, seen by some East Londoners as a real-life alien occupation embodied by the Wellsian specter over the re-styled landscape of Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit tower.

After completing his winning ride, Wiggins promptly got back on his bike and rolled back out into the crowds on an impromptu lap of honour, seemingly restless and ill at ease with the mock pageantry of the victor's enclosure at the Tudor-era Hampton Court palace.

"The great thing about cycling is that anyone can watch it," Wiggins said later, when finally pinned down by journalists, shortly before embarking on a vodka-tonic-fueled celebratory night that would culminate with the people's champion tweeting pictures of himself "getting wasted" in a rooftop bar overlooking St Paul's Cathedral.

"We all know about the Olympic ticketing -- inside here, it can all become a bit of a prawn sandwich fest," referring dismissively to the reputed snack of choice of the much-derided corporate freeloader.

"Ultimately, all the real fans are outside the gates."

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