If Gordon Brown needed an object lesson in how sport can divert the nation from its present preoccupation with economic gloom, he could have done worse than get himself down to Mansfield's Market Square yesterday evening.
Few places have been hit harder by the decline of heavy industry in Britain than the former Nottinghamshire mining town, but negative talk was sparse on the ground as several thousand people, most of them waving Union flags, gathered to welcome home the local double gold medal-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington.
Until this month, the most famous person from the area was arguably Shane Fenton, better known to millions of 1970s pop fans as Alvin Stardust. But two victories in the Beijing "Water Cube" – one of them a world record – have rewritten the rules of civic pride round here and introduced a new phenomenon to the town: Beccymania.
"It has been absolutely insane," she said before an open-top bus procession through Mansfield. "I haven't had two minutes to sit down. It has been a bit overwhelming, to be honest." Few had heard of the 19-year-old before she set out for China last month. So far, her home street, her training pool and a local pub have been renamed in her honour. To crown it all, the self-confessed shoe addict was driven to Mansfield's civic centre in a golden Rolls-Royce to be presented with a specially crafted pair of watersnake Jimmy Choo shoes in the requisite gilded colour, by the town's Mayor, Tony Egginton.
Among the crowd was Pete Foster, a retired telecoms worker, who brought his grandchildren to the square to savour the atmosphere. After a lifetime watching the town decline, he was glad to have something to cheer. "There can be hardly anyone under 50 who can remember success here," he said. "We don't do anything in this town now but shop. Mansfield used to be known for its textile mills, stocking factories and the brewery. There used to be a pit in every village. Nearly all that is gone. Even the Stags (Mansfield Town Football Club) have been relegated out of the Football League after 77 years. This has given everyone in the town a lift," he said.
Denise Chapman, a senior nurse, who had come into town with her 10-year-old daughter Abigail, agreed. "She has done the town proud and it will encourage young people to get involved. It is good to hear something nice being said about Mansfield. You should see this place on a Friday or Saturday night."
Dressed in their blue team tops, members of Mansfield Swimming Club were enjoying seeing their sport in the spotlight. Jessica Collins, 13, was among the youngsters who train at the local Watermeadows pool – where Rebecca Adlington honed her gold medal-winning talents – up to six times a week. "It has definitely made us more confident and I hope it will encourage the sport. We all feel inspired."
Her fellow swimmer Rebecca Bowskill, 14, said she thought her namesake's victory had promoted the image of the sport. "Not a lot of the boys were very interested but I think they are starting to take notice of it, and they are getting behind Sam Hynd in the Paralympics – he is from Mansfield as well."
Mr Egginton said her success would inspire others beyond the world of sport. "Through the success of Rebecca, we now have a golden opportunity to inspire even more young people to go on and achieve success, whether in sport or other walks of life. This is what hard work can achieve."