Shortly after nine o'clock on Saturday night you could hear the gentle pitter patter, all across Britain.
It's been a dreadfully wet summer, but was there any need for this mass precipitation, as tear ducts country-wide filled to bursting point and broke their banks? It seemed no amount of blinking, sniffing or dabbing could hold them back. One might as well ask a ravenous infant to quit bawling as expect the Olympic audiences, and the athletes themselves, to keep the floodgates shut.
Thus, when Jessica Ennis was interviewed, and later when she took the winners' podium she, like so many athletes this year, struggled to maintain her composure in the face of tears of exhaustion, relief and joy. Meanwhile, a nation reached for its tissues in unison, as if this were a new sort of synchronised sport.
But while it's understandable when Ennis, Sir Chris Hoy and other gold medallists are swept by emotion, and perhaps even more so when the likes of Rebecca Adlington and Andy Murray, at Wimbledon last month, weep at not winning, what does it say about those of us watching that we are also choked? And when the professionals covering the events are overcome by tears, you surely have to ask, what's going on?
As Ennis won her final race, cameras showed commentator and former champion heptathlete Denise Lewis wiping away tears. Earlier that day, when interviewing the British rowing team Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase, who cried as they apologised for merely getting silver, the BBC's John Inverdale found himself swallowing hard, his eyes misty, voice breaking, as he admitted feeling weepy too. This, from one of the finest sports journalists in the game. Imagine if Terry Wogan had sobbed every time Britain's hopes were crushed in the Eurovision Song Contest. Or if Bill McLaren had bawled whenever Scotland's rugby squad failed to prevail. His sinuses would have been blocked long before season's end, along with any chance of covering future fixtures.
It would appear that Britain, whose citizens used to be as touchy-feely as marble plinths, has changed personality. Nowadays not only are we allowed to emote, but we grab every opportunity. This may not be wholly bad, given how many lives have been blighted by fear of admitting to, let alone showing, our feelings. Nevertheless, there's something unseemly and unsettling about the excesses of public emotion we've been seeing of late.
Part of it comes from television's insistence on getting a comment from a sportsperson moments after they've finished their event, when they can barely stand, let alone think straight. But that trend is merely a symptom of a public hunger to see raw, unfettered displays of feeling. These snatched trackside conversations, like those taken outside court rooms and crime scenes, are an ideal opportunity to catch people unguarded. Heartlessly, viewers don't care about people's dignity, they just want drama.
It's not all about timing. Compared to the generations that lived through the Second World War or the Cold War, people today are soft. Some of this comes from having far easier lives, but maybe it's also the result of living in an age of virtual reality, when hype and hysteria make it hard to be rational. Thanks to the media's magnifying glass, and to ceaseless digital chatter and online lives, we are less well-grounded and far more volatile. Indeed, some of our feelings are artificial, and dangerously open to manipulation. As a result, we're becoming more credulous, our heart-strings constantly plucked.
Some of this mood surely dates to the death of Princess Diana. In the lachrymose outpouring of second-hand grief that followed her demise, Britain broke the stiff-upper-lip mould we were raised in, and replaced it with a bleeding heart. It was almost as if Diana encouraged us to do as she had done. So, in the same way she had tried to inject warmth into the chilly formality of the royal family, we commoners turned our backs on centuries of deep-frozen feelings, of psychological icebergs left untouched and reservoirs of unspoken sadness, and embraced freedom of self-expression. In so doing we ushered in the emotional equivalent of global warming. This explains why today we're ankle-deep in tears, too many of the crocodile variety.
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