Books: Even As We Speak — Postcards from the Olympics 1 : Carry That Torch |
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Postcards from the Olympics 1 : Carry That Torch

Just after lunch on Tuesday I left a London that was running out of petrol and on Wednesday evening I arrived in a Sydney that had everything, up to and including the Olympic Games. The contrast was stunning. Prosperity, energy and sheer friendliness flooded the atmosphere even at the airport, where I was busted for drugs in the nicest possible way. In the customs hall a sniffer dog took an interest in one of my bags. Interest escalated into a passionate relationship. While the mutt was humping my holdall, its handler, a dedicated but charming young lady with freckles, regretfully insisted that she had to frisk me. Jet lag was joined by trepidation: what if some pharmacist for the Chinese swimming team had disguised himself as a baggage-handler at Bangkok and planted a gallon jug of human growth hormone in my spare underwear?

Barely had half my intimate garments been unloaded on the examination table before it transpired that the canine narc had been turned on by a box of chocolates I was bringing in for my mother. I should have guessed. Even when of German extraction, an Australian dog can only be a hedonist, and Sydney was out to prove that it can do hedonism better than any other city on earth or die trying.

If that sounds like a contradiction in terms then it fits Australia’s collective state of mind as the games get under way. Never in the world was there such a degree of national well-being plagued with so much insecurity, although it’s a fair bet that most of the paranoia is generated by the press rather than the people. For the media and the intelligentsia — two categories which in Australia share the one mind to an extent rare in the civilized world — there is a nagging, never-ending doubt about whether Australia has yet taken its rightful place as a Mature Nation. Will the Sydney Olympics finally work the trick? Or will we screw the whole thing up?

Among ordinary people the same intensity of soul-searching is hard to detect. They just get on with enjoying the good life, on the sensible assumption that the rest of the world must be doing pretty well if it’s got anything better than this. A lot of the ordinary people were there among the milling foreign visitors as I arrived downtown in a cab driven by a Lebanese who had found the way with remarkably little trouble for someone who had immigrated the previous week. Squadrons of local roller-bladers in kangaroo-eared helmets zoomed politely through strolling swarms of guests joining one jam-packed pavement bar to another. Australians from out of town were easily identifiable, especially if they were wrinklies. A wrinkly is anyone my age or even older. Wrinklies often still wear the Akubra hat of legend. There were wrinkly married couples in the full kit of Akubra, many-pocketed leisure suit and bulging backpack, except that the whole ensemble was coloured Olympic blue. When there are wrinklies in the street at night, it means everybody is in the street at night. Ancient cries of ‘No worries’ echoed under the awnings, even as the fiendish music of the young blasted out of the bars.

A wrinkly myself and creased with it, I checked into the Wentworth. My usual drum is the Regent, but it was full of the International Olympic Committee, an outfit famous for living high on hot money. The Wentworth was packed out with a guest list that pays its own way and helps pay for the games at the same time — the executives of the giant electronics conglomerate Panasonic. The foyer was alive with Japanese executives in impeccably tailored suits, giving each other the cool nod that nowadays serves as shorthand for the formal bow. In my travelling kit of M&S black T-shirt stained with airline food, black jeans with Lycra content and twenty-four-hour stubble, I felt lucky that my room hadn’t been cancelled. Born and raised in an era without air conditioning, I opened my bedroom window to let in the warm Pacific night and crashed out to the sound of happy laughter coming up from the street in twenty languages, some of them spoken in countries where life is a lot less attractive. ‘I know why they’re laughing,’ was my fading thought. ‘They can’t believe this is real.’

I woke to a late morning of perfect sunlight and ambled down to Circular Quay to take breakfast at Rossini’s, my favourite snackeria on earth. For years it has been my custom to sit out in the sun at Rossini’s for a slow latte and cinnamon toast. The bridge soars on the left, the Opera House ruffles its wings on the right, and the office workers pile off the ferries as I relax with the morning papers. This time I had to queue up for a table. The whole of the quay was one big multilingual paseo of quietly ecstatic world citizens. The newspapers, when I finally got a seat, revealed that they, too, had caught the mood. Their big question now was who would be chosen to run the last few yards of the torch relay and light the cauldron at the opening ceremony. Dawn Fraser? Don Bradman? Phar Lap? On most mornings of the previous six months, their big question had been whether the games would sink to destruction under a growing load of drug scandals, corruption and administrative incompetence, thereby further delaying Australia’s pain-racked ascent to its rightful place among the world’s mature nations. If experience had not taught me better I would have expected to arrive in a city with the same festive atmosphere as Sodom and Gomorrah on the morning after a wrathful God spat the dummy.

Certainly the press had not been deprived of grist to its mill. Two of Australia’s members of the IOC had performed less than brilliantly. Both ex-athletes of distinction, they had fallen prey to the Olympic Movement’s time-dishonoured habit of smoothing its way with fat from the pork barrel. Phil Coles had copped some heavily discounted holidays, during which his wife had adorned herself with jewellery of unexplained provenance. The depredation had amounted to only a few thousand Australian dollars — barely a small van-load of peanuts when you factor in the current exchange rate — but it had been enough to obliterate the kudos Phil had coming to him for doing more than anyone else to snare the games for Sydney. Phil is a simple soul whose true stamping ground is the sand in front of the surf club, but perhaps he should have known better. And Kevan Gosper, a more sophisticated spirit, should definitely have known better: when it was suggested that his little daughter might like to run the first leg of the torch relay in place of the Aussie Greek girl who had been scheduled for the task, he should have said no. On the other hand, his explanation — ‘My fatherly pride simply clouded my judgement’ — should have been held sufficient. For the Australian press that had already called him a ‘reptile’, his tardy but remorseful mea culpa was merely a further sign of arrogance. He went on to be inundated with the sort of abuse that Vyshinsky, during the Moscow show trials in 1938, used to unload on Trotskyite wreckers and other tools of imperialism who seemed to think that abject self-accusation could mitigate their perfidy.

The outfit running the Sydney Olympics is called SOCOG, pursuant to the standard Australian journalistic delusion that acronyms make prose easier to read. SOCOG’s initial issue of tickets was a SNAFU, and it was assumed from then on that All Fucked Up would be Situation Normal. The organizers have hence had to operate in a media climate by which everything they do right is their merest duty, while everything they do wrong is a calamity hindering Australia from its rightful place among mature nations. There were also suggestions that Aboriginal leaders might, or even should, bring the whole thing to a halt with flaming spears, if an overdose of performance-enhancing drugs had not already propelled a majority of the world’s athletes raving into Sydney harbour to drown bloodily among man-eating sharks trained on a diet of triathletes. No worries? Nothing but.

But at Rossini’s I concluded that the press, at the eleventh hour, had caught up with the crowds around me. In both senses of the last word, ‘She’ll be right, sport’ was the phrase that fitted. Hard-bitten journos had put off the burden of Australia’s global destiny and begun to exult. Some of the exultation might be as debilitating as the previous angst. Legitimate national pride is easily infected by nationalist fervour, especially when it comes to medal prospects. Australia has always punched a ton above its weight in that department, but success can breed hubris. With feet longer than my legs and the facial profile of a racing yacht’s keel turned on end, Ian Thorpe is a mighty swimmer, but the expectations heaped upon him could add up to a haversack full of lead. Cathy Freeman has been hiding out all year from a double pressure: some of the Aboriginal activists didn’t want her to run at all (conniving at the fake prestige of racist Australia, etc.), while many who wish her well imbue her inevitable victory with a mountain of symbolic significance (incarnating the multicultural unity of mature Australia, etc.). There is much less press about her French rival Marie-José Pérec, who is not only physically bigger but on several occasions, notably the last Olympics in Atlanta, has run faster. If Cathy comes second, the press who have badgered her will bear a heavy responsibility, but you can bet that most of it will be transferred to her.

Still, you can’t blame the media for being fascinated; and stuff about national prestige was nothing but true when it came to the torch relay, which had been a triumph, an example to the watching world, and huge fun. The thing had fulminated its way all over Australia by now. It had been carried by celebrities, poets, artists, palsied kids who had to be carried themselves, and representatives of every known ethnic group including, bizarrely, Crown Prince Albert of Monaco. That night it was due to be carried past Circular Quay, where the crowds would be colossal. There was small chance of seeing anything at ground level. Spotting the Paragon hotel, a classic two-storey sandstone edifice that was already old when I waddled past it as a tot on the great day my mother took me on the ferry to the zoo, I made my plans. That second storey was the secret.

That night I was in an upstairs pub room looking down into the tumultuous crowd. What I had failed to calculate was that part of the tumultuous crowd would be in the room with me. The joint was jumping with the young and beautiful. Jammed between two scintillating lovelies called Claire and Polly, each of whom had at least four boyfriends standing behind us, I had an upper circle seat for the triumphal march from Aida revamped as a musical comedy. The progress of the torch in our direction was visible in detail on a giant television screen hanging from the Cahill expressway on the far side of the plaza. The screen relayed images from cameras all over the sky. Media helicopters thwacked overhead, weaving to avoid a giant dirigible marked ‘G’DAY’. As they dodged the diridge, they were getting pictures of heaven on earth. At the Opera House Olivia Newton-John, radiant in her flour-bag jogging whites, passed the torch to the even lovelier Pat Rafter, his darling knees dimpling in the photo-flash. While the boyfriends blew satirical raspberries, piercingly audible even through the uproar, Claire and Polly passed out screaming. They screamed ‘Nice pants!’ and ‘Call it off, we’ve had enough!’ Shouting was the only way to communicate basic information. At that moment the Olympic rings lit up on the bridge and fireworks erupted from the pylons at each end. One of the boyfriends, a pug-faced wag called Nugget, yelled ‘And we live here!’

It was the right thing to yell. The bunch around me were all in the professions: architecture, law, finance. They had all been at university together. When they were born, the Melbourne Olympics were already more than twenty years ago. This was their time, their city and, I had to admit, their country. Their combination of boundless energy, unbridled humour and fundamental gentleness would be the best guarantee for preserving the future that was already here. As the torch went by, they assured me it was a fake and made sure I noted that down. They were referring to the hallowed tradition by which a hoax torch always precedes the real one. It first happened when the torch went through Sydney on its way to Melbourne in 1956. The Lord Mayor of Sydney was presented with a flaming plum-pudding tin on a stick, fell for it, and launched into his official spiel. In the laughter that followed him for the rest of his life, his only consolation was that nobody ever did that to Hitler.

The big day dawned cool and cloudy. Out at Homebush Bay the Olympic stadia still looked good under a darker sky as the itinerant population roamed, schmoozed, kibitzed and rehearsed. The great thing, for which the officials have received insufficient credit, is that it all got built in good time. The main stadium’s 1,500 eco-friendly dunnies have thrilled the nation. Earlier in the year I had flown in to host a black-tie fundraiser for the Australian Olympic team and had been massively impressed. But did I really want to watch the opening ceremony from a box full of blasé journos sneaking sideways looks at the size of each other’s modems? Or did I want to watch it in the city, surrounded by the best party on the planet? It was no contest. The real story was in the streets. My Croatian cab driver found the Harbour Bridge at only his second try.

Watching the show on the giant screens in the city there must have been a million people. A lot of them were at Circular Quay and in Martin Place, my two choices of al fresco venue. To get a view I had to play the wrinkly line for all it was worth. By a long mile it was the best show of its kind I have ever seen, perhaps the first great choreographic work of the new century. To know the whole world would see it brought tears of pride to my tiny eyes. It was a triumph for its impresario, Ric Birch. At the handover in Atlanta, he sent in a team of bike-riding inflatable kangaroos and earned an undeserved reputation for naffness with the Australian media, worried that he might have damaged our rating as an incipient mature nation. But with this effort he proved himself the Diaghilev of the Southern hemisphere. The aerial reef ballet staged in imaginary water was a miracle. My favourite bit was the fluttering swarm of jellyfish. The whole lyrical synthesis of the Aboriginal dreamtime and the modern age was an unrelenting wow. At Circular Quay thousands of people were agog, as if an autistic Almighty had used human mouths endlessly to inscribe the letter O. The Tap Dogs extravaganza went down especially well in Martin Place, where the boys got exuberant. There being no more room on the ground, they started to climb anything vertical, including tall women. One boy got all the way to the top of a flagpole. The cheers were deafening. He was part of the show. Everybody was.

The pop anthems were uniformly dire, and the Olympic Committee top dog Juan Antonio Samaranch spoke English in a way that made you wonder if his Spanish was any better, but nothing could dent the show’s integrity. Asking Australia’s Olympic women to share the final lap of the torch was the right thing at long last, because the women’s vote lies at the heart of our democracy. All in all it was life that was celebrated, and not mere health. (In that respect, choosing the wheelchair-bound Betty Cuthbert to carry the torch into the stadium was a masterstroke.) As for asking Cathy Freeman to light the cauldron, well, it might do as much to inspire her as to weigh her down, and anyway she is a brave girl who feels free to choose, so she must have chosen this. But the best thing about the whole spectacle was that its precision wasn’t military. When Nietzsche addressed the problem of whether there could be a work of art without an artist, the first example he came up with was the human body, and the second was the officer corps of the Prussian army. The idea caught on strong in Germany, where the Berlin Olympics in 1936 sealed the deadly conjunction between athletics and squad drill. (By no coincidence, the man in charge, Edgar Feuchtanger, turned up again as the commander of the 21st Panzer Division at Caen.) Filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi dream of beautiful bodies on the march had a long and sinister influence, but Sydney buried its last remains. At Birch’s invitation I wrote the programme note, so you must allow for a vested interest: but I guessed the show would be a bobby-dazzler and I was right. What I didn’t guess was that it would be so beautiful, a work of art. The sport will be hard-pressed to match it.

In Martin Place there were a lot of broken beer bottles by the time I left, but as far as I could see nobody was getting hurt. It was sad to think that an equivalent concentration of young people in Britain would have been hard to trust. I can remember when the Australians were the hoons and the British behaved. The world has turned back to front: but when you think about it, the world does that all the time.

(Independent, September–October 2000)