Fifteen minutes, three finals, three British swimmers, and not a single medal. That old John Cleese line from Clockwork comes to mind, as it so often seems to for British sports fans. "It's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand."
Now, neither Gemma Spofforth, Liam Tancock, nor Robbie Renwick was a favourite for gold, or even to win a medal. And each swam well in their way. But after three days the British swimming team are beginning to feel in sore need of a filip from someone, the kind of against-the-odds performance that defies such things as simple statistical logic, and which we had always assumed these Games would inspire.
The kind of performance, in fact, that was delivered a 15-year-old from Plymouth a little later on in the evening. The only trouble being that Ruta Meilutyte competes for Lithuania rather than Great Britain.
She won the gold in the 100m breaststroke final, having come to the Olympics expecting only to try and swim a personal best. Meilutyte, who trains at Plymouth College under British coach John Rudd, beat the World Champion from the USA, Rebecca Soni, into second place with an extraordinary swim of 1min 5.47sec. If she felt the pressure Rebecca Adlington reckons is inhibiting the British team, she didn't show it until the final 15m, when she began to tighten up a touch as Soni came back at her. But Meilutyte held her off, just, and won by eight hundredths of a second, a fingernail's length. Her moment on the podium, when she burst into tears as the crowd cried out her name, will be one of the most treasured memories of the Games.
The other phenom of the pool, China's new Olympic 400m Individual Medley champion Ye Shiwen, is a year older than Meilutyte but twice as formidable. She cruised to a new Olympic record in the semi-finals of the 200m IM, beating the mark set by Stephanie Rice in Beijing. She made it look even easier than Michael Phelps had in the 200m butterfly. He won his semi-final with a breathtaking burst in the final 50m, suggesting that reports of his demise have been, perhaps, just a touch premature.
Renwick was the first British finalist into the pool, in the 200m freestyle. Alongside him on the blocks were five of the seven fastest men in history at that distance, Ryan Lochte, the world champion, Paul Biedermann, the German world record holder, the Frenchman Yannick Agnel, top of the rankings this year, Park Taehwan, the South Korean who won the silver in Beijing, and Danile Izatov, a Russian who has won five World and Olympic medals. And that was before you got to Sun Yang, the 20-year-old from China who won the Olympic 400m title on Saturday night. It was the kind of field that makes betting look a futile business, fruitful only for the bookies.
Unless, that is, you happen to have been paying attention. Biedermann was the first man off the blocks, but from that point on it was Angel who dominated. Just as he had in the final leg of the 4x100m relay, when he cruised past Lochte to take France to gold, Agnel made the business of controlling the race look absurdly easy. He is only 20, but has been the coming man for a while. He won nine medals at the European junior championships in 2009 and 2010, eight of them gold.
This was his first major individual medal, but not, you suspect, his last. Lochte, to the horror of his innumerable fans, finished fourth, behind both Park and Sun. That's twice in two days that he has been badly beaten by Agnel, who has stolen his thunder as well as his medals. Renwick was back in sixth, the same place he finished in Beijing.
Then came Spofforth, in the final of the 100m backstroke. She is still the world record holder in the event, a mark that dates back to the 2009 world championship, when she won gold. Spofforth has been through a lot since then, more than any person should have to bear. She lost her mother to cancer in 2007, and her father's partner June and daughter Vicky both died of the same disease in 2011. The depression that followed caused drove her to contemplate suicide, and ultimately led her to channelling her energy into becoming a counsellor.
It was a triumph that Spofforth was even competing, given that she wanted to quit the sport this time last year. The final was one by the remarkable Missy Franklin, only 17, and competing 20 minutes after she had qualified for the 200m freestyle final. She beat Australia' Emily Seebohm by a third of a second. Spofforth was fifth.
"Like I said all along it is the journey not the destination," she said afterwards. "I just want to say to all those people who are in a time of crisis right now there is always light at the end of the tunnel and I am almost there. I love doing everything again, I have a passion for everything again." She says she plans to go and climb Everest when the Games are over. She scaled a mountain just to make it here.
As for Tancock, well he was both more chipper and more succinct after his own fifth-placed finish in the 100m backstroke. "I went out there and gave it everything," he said. "But it didn't come off. But hey, Rio is in four years right?" He never had much of a chance of beating the eventual winner, the USA's Matthew Grevers, who set a new Olympic record of 52.16sec. But he turned in joint third, up alongside eventual silver medalist Nick Thoman, before slipping back in the final 25 metres or so.
There is plenty of time, of course, for the medals to come. Tancock will spend Tuesday night cheering on his girlfriend Caitlin McClatchey, who qualified sixth for the final of the 200m freestyle.
Hannah Miley also made it through to the final of the 200m Individual Medley, finishing second in her heat thanks to a brilliant breaststroke leg, but seventh overall. They will hope to do what no other British finalist has done and at least match their time from the Olympic trials. Ah, there's that word again. Hope. We just can't help it, can we?
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image: © steve gibson