By Nick Mulvenney
LONDON (Reuters) - Gold medals for Anna Meares and Sally Pearson lifted the Olympic gloom hovering over Australia on Wednesday but the respite is likely to be brief with recriminations over the London showing set to resound for a long time.
Australia has always punched above its weight at the Olympics and was perhaps the first country to realize the soft power that can be harnessed by sporting success on the international stage.
The 410-strong Australian team came to London determined to rain on Britain's parade but instead found themselves staring at a gold drought and the prospect of a worst showing at a Games for 20 years.
Before Tuesday's triumphs, Australia trailed New Zealand - the neighbors they love to patronize - in the medals table, while athletes from the English county of Yorkshire have still won more golds than the entire Australian team.
At the end of day 10, they had just two golds and were languishing in 19th place on the table, a long way from the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC)'s goal of a top five finish.
The reaction back home in Australia has been splenetic with fierce criticism of athletes perceived to have failed - like swimmer James Magnussen, who had all but guaranteed 100 meters freestyle gold but lost the final by a fingertip.
On Tuesday, or Wednesday morning Australia time, Meares and Pearson stepped up to raise the flagging spirits of a proud sporting nation.
Meares had the last word in her rivalry with Britain's Victoria Pendleton at the velodrome to win the women's cycling sprint and said she had certainly felt the pressure to up her country's tally of golds.
"Yes, oh my god! I think the whole team is feeling it," Meares told a news conference on Wednesday.
"I was really surprised this morning at the number of athletes in the Australia team who had watched Sally and I and how many came up to offer their congratulations."
Later the same evening, Pearson fulfilled her dream of winning Olympic gold in the 100 meters hurdles, a first for Australia on the track since Cathy Freeman's 400 meters triumph in Sydney in 2000.
Pearson was incredulous, however, when asked whether she had felt extra pressure because of Australia's low gold count.
"Only four golds?" she said. "I think that's pretty good."
"A lot of people who don't do sport, don't realize how tough it is in getting through the Olympics let alone getting a medal," she added on Wednesday.
"It's one of the toughest things in the world. You have to be on the brink of breaking yourself to become the best in the world.
"Considering all that, and the pressure on the Australian team to do well, I think we've done remarkably."
The Australian media grabbed their chance to finally be able to crow about homegrown success on Wednesday and images of Meares in tears and Pearson swathed in an Australian flag dominated the news websites.
"Sally-mania has taken over Australia," splashed the Herald Sun, Australia's best selling paper, while thousands of Australians took to Twitter to hail Pearson as "a legend and an inspiration".
Australia's poor start to the Games was largely down to a disappointing display by the swimmers, who can usually be relied upon to get the team off to a flier in the first week and contribute the bulk of the medals.
The Australians won a total of 10 medals in the pool but only one gold which, for a country that takes swimming very seriously, was little short of a disaster.
Australia's swimmers won six gold medals in Beijing and seven in Athens and Swimming Australia have now announced a root and branch review of what went wrong.
"It is clear the world has lifted the bar when it comes to swimming and so must we," president David Urquhart said on Monday.
The last time Australia did not win an individual swimming gold was at Montreal in 1976, when there was not a single Olympic title claimed by the 184-strong delegation.
That triggered a crisis back home and led to the foundation of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), which used the latest science and training methods to prepare world class elite athletes.
The AIS transformed Australian sport and was the foundation for the country's success at the last three Games.
It was widely copied by other nations, however, and many of those countries are now taking gold medals off Australians.
The London experience will certainly prompt a review of the AOC's strategy and how it spends its money, according to Chef de Mission Nick Green.
"We'll look at all of that post-Games and then we'll make some recommendations," he said.
"We'll do what we can and implement the right strategy to ensure that we are in a position where we feel we rightfully belong, and that's in the top five on the medals table."
(Additional reporting by Maggie Lu-YueYang, editing by Nigel Hunt)