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Gold medalists ‘going postal’ breaks traditions
8/22/2012 9:53:43 AM

By Anna Henry
Splash Guest Column

My husband and I recently returned from a vacation to England, where we visited some close friends and took in a couple Olympic events. Before we arrived, our friends were among the lucky few who were actually in the Aquatic Center to witness Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

The events we were going to during our trip were far more obscure and probably didn't warrant even a blip in U.S. coverage. But, by being in England, I watched it firsthand, and more importantly, I saw the 2012 Olympics from a perspective full of intriguing and inspiring "firsts" that I would have missed if we'd stayed home, such as the legally blind man from South Korea who won gold in archery.

But my favorite first for this year's game? It wasn't the achievement of one athlete. It was a collective effort by ordinary people who work for the British Royal Mail. Over the course of 17 days, they produced and sold 29 new stamps to commemorate each event for which a British Olympian won gold. Like the 2012 athletes, they too achieved something medal-worthy: passing the torch of Olympic pride on to citizens across the nation.

Making that happen was no small accomplishment. Traditionally, it takes about two years before a new British stamp is available for circulation. The gold medal stamps were available by noon the day after the gold was achieved.

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Before being able to release the stamps, one particularly significant hurdle stood in the way. British law mandates that all stamps published by the Royal Mail be signed off by the queen. The solution came in the form of a template, which she pre-approved. That action led to another historic event. Until the 2012 Olympics, The Queen had been the only living person to appear on British postage.

The design team raced against time, finalizing the stamp's artwork using pictures provided by the official photo agency of the International Olympic Committee. Next, like a successful relay handoff, the stamp hit printing presses at six locations around the United Kingdom. On the final leg of the race, a fleet of 90 Royal Mail vehicles overnighted the new stamps to more than 500 post offices, and distributed to an additional 4,700 post offices within a week.

In yet another Royal Mail first, many of the 500 post offices were open on Sunday during the Games so fans could purchase the latest sheet of six first-class Olympics Gold Medal stamps for £3.60 (less than $6) or buy them individually. Based on my significant souvenir shopping experience, I can confidently say that as Olympic souvenirs go, these were definitely among the most affordable.

Apparently other fans thought so, too. The first Olympic Gold stamps commemorated the women's rowing team of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. The day after their win, the main post office in Glover's hometown received 80 sheets of stamps. They sold out in about an hour.

Being a longtime tennis fan, I stopped at a post office to get the stamp marking Andy Murray taking home the gold in men's singles. The postmaster told me he had 50 sheets of them the day before but sold out by midday. He hadn't received any more and didn't know when he would.

With our postal service facing financial hardships, it wasn't lost on me that the Royal Mail had found a great way to add dosh to its coffers. You can bet a large number of stamps won't be blemished by postage clearing markings. These commemorative treasures will be tucked away by avid stamp collectors and other Olympic fans like me. Those unused stamps are like money in the bank to the mail service, and judging by the sellouts, I'm thinking the bank balance might not be too shabby.

Stamps weren't the only way gold medalists went postal. In the hometown of every golden athlete, the Royal Mail painted a postbox gold. With few exceptions, Royal Mail boxes have gleamed England's iconic red since 1874. While the Royal Mail has said the gold boxes will in time return to the normal red color, for now the gold boxes are practically shrines. Folks even queued to have their photos taken with one.

I'm a bit embarrassed to confess I was among those lured to a box touched by Midas. I felt a bit ridiculous standing there getting my picture taken, but I figured what the heck; I'd already bought the stamps so, in for a penny in for a pound, as they say. I never would have dreamed a little gold box could mean so much to a community, but for many locals, that gold box might as well be their own gold metal.

For example, when Alistair Brownlee won the triathlon gold and his brother, Johnny, won bronze in the same event, two cities vied for the special postbox: Bramhop, where the brothers currently live and train, and Harsforth, where they grew up.

A resident of Bramhope took matters into his own hands and painted one of the town's boxes gold, only to be disheartened when the Royal Mail repainted it red. The BBC News quoted the Picasso-wannabe as stating he thought the Royal Mail was "mean and miserable."

BBC News also quoted Bramhop's Jason Cullen, "We were in the pub Tuesday night thinking where is it going to be. We were saying there's a fantastic post box in the middle of our gorgeous village not far from where the boys live and that the whole village would be able to see every day. The boys would see it every day. We were bitterly disappointed when it was not there."

It seems a fitting topic to have pondered over pints.

London is currently hosting the Paralympics, and in yet another first, the Royal Mail is striving to extend the gold medal treatment to these athletes as well. However, the Paralympics present a challenge in that there have been single days in prior Paralympics where British athletes have won 19 gold medals; an accomplishment the Royal Mail cannot match with custom stamps. However, the Royal Mail will release stamps for Britain's Paralympics gold medalists within five days of their success.

I'll never know what coverage of the Olympics was like in America while I was gone, but I do know that from my English vantage point, the greatest things that happened weren't limited to just Olympians.

Anna Henry lives in Liberty Lake.

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