Books: Even As We Speak — Postcards from the Olympics 3: Prelude to Cathy |
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Postcards from the Olympics 3 : Prelude to Cathy

With Cathy Freeman yet to run the first week of the Sydney Olympics would still have been a dreamtime for Australia even without the sparkling results from the big billabong. Blessed by heavenly weather, clever organization and twenty million people ready to party it up for two and a half weeks solid if they absolutely had to, the games were a hit. But it was a bonus that the Aussie swimmers had made an initial assault which left even the Americans flabbergasted.

It was too good to last. In fact if it had lasted it would have been bad, because it would have meant that nobody else had bothered learning to swim. They had, however: and especially the Dutch, who had come out of nowhere — i.e. the Netherlands — to remind even Ian Thorpe that majestic young men with unfeasibly large feet had been born elsewhere on the planet at about the same time as he was. Primus inter pares among these was Pieter van den Hoogenband. When Hoogie touched out Thorpie over 200m, Australia woke up. The continuous party was still on for young and old, as they say locally, but the bodies under the tables and draped over the banisters were suddenly galvanized again and staring at the TV screens, where Hoogie’s face was all too frequently to be seen, unabashed by his own temerity and handsome beyond belief.

Most Australians have never seen David Ginola, but if, by some trick of instantaneous teleportation, he had appeared in his underpants in downtown Sydney, the young women would have run over him like small trucks to grab a piece of the preposterously handsome Hoogie. Still smiling like Julia Roberts being awarded an Oscar in her bathtub, the next night Hoogie took out the 100m three places ahead of Australia’s Michael Klim, whose mere appearance — shaven head, vulpine smile, the eyes of a cashiered SMERSH officer pledged to wreak vengeance with a stolen atomic bomb — can usually be relied on to drain the opposition’s will to live.

Australia’s darling, the kanga-cuddling Susie O’Neill, unexpectedly took out the 200m freestyle, but equally unexpectedly swam second in her fave event, the 200m butterfly, beaten by America’s wonderfully named Misty Hyman, who sounded like a doubtful virgin from mythology but responded to the Aussie cheers for Susie by going faster herself. The Americans loved the idea of so much attention being focused on swimming. In the USA hardly anybody cares. In Australia hardly anybody doesn’t. Misty, already equipped with the honorific diminutive, joined Hoogie on the short roster of aquatic adoptees. It helped that she looked like a bit of a kanga-hugger herself.

American back-stroker Lenny Krayzelburg was harder to adore. He psyched our boys out in the preliminary races by leaving off his cap and bodysuit and swimming in nothing but hip-slinger trunkettes, in the same way that snow bums wear street clothes to make you feel like an idiot for buying all that expensive gear. But in the finals, decently dressed, he was so good that he earned from the Australian crowd the rarely awarded supplementary diminutive, given to the second name of an adoptee who already has one on the first. He was not only Lenny, he was Krazy. (There is an Australian girl diver called Loudy Torky, but she was probably born that way, unless her real name is Loud Talk.)

The Italians were also doing indecently well. Their multi-purpose star swimmer Massimiliano Rosolino was assigned the name of Massie. Diana Mocanu of Romania won two back-stroke golds and will henceforth be known as Mockie. How did the Romanians afford a swimming pool? Even the Swedes were featuring. Did they have any warm water in Sweden? And who was this guy from Iceland? In the glaring advent of all these new stellar personalities, Thorpie’s refulgence was threatened with eclipse.

He had, however, won three gold medals, with possible others in the offing if his respiratory infection got no worse or media pressure did not get him down. In this latter respect he is better off than his senior compatriot Shane Gould, probably the greatest swimmer of either sex there has even been. At Munich in 1972 she won three gold medals but at least five had been expected, so one of the Aussie papers ran the delicately judged headline SHANE FAILS. (Shane dropped right out of civilization after that, but recently resurfaced as the author of a fascinating book called Tumble Turns, which proves that her outlandish athletic gifts were matched all along by an unusual purity of spirit.) The Aussie press, perhaps having learned a thing or two in the interim, handled Thorpie more gently. But what would the world press think? Thorpe had been built up as a global figure. Would he be torn down on the same scale?

As I took a sunlit late breakfast of latte and panzerotto down at Rossini’s on Circular Quay, it was a relief to find that Japan’s great newspaper Asahi Shimbun was a model of common sense on the subject. In the sports section they had a prominent article on Thorpie complete with photograph. My Japanese is no longer what it was when I was studying it every day, but I think I got the drift, feeling my way in by looking for the transcribed foreign names. In Japanese, alien loan-words are registered to the katakana phonetic alphabet, and are always a good place to start unpacking a sentence. In this case the job was less easy than usual. Van den Hoogenband came out as Fuanden Hohenbato. Actually, after I checked it out with a couple of Dutch fans in yellow hats — riding on the crest of Hoogie’s success, they are all accustomed by now to being interviewed on a continuous basis — this turned out to be pretty close: the only thing wrong was the final ‘o’, which had to be there because the only consonant that can end a Japanese word is ‘n’.

But the katakana transcription of ‘Thorpe’ was necessarily a bit of a shambles, because there is nothing the Japanese can do with the ‘th’ sound, which is not in their syllabary. So ‘Ian’ comes out all right but ‘Thorpe’ comes out as Sopu. The text, though, was up-beat. If it spent a lot of time probing the psychological equilibrium of Sopu’s mother under the tremendous pressure that was clearly being at least partly applied by the Japanese reporter trying to climb through her front window, the sensible conclusion was reached that Sopu had a big future to go with his bag of gold medals. Particular praise was lavished on the staunchness with which Sopu had led Osotoraria to victory in the 4x200m relay. (It is quite likely, incidentally, that the Australians will end up speaking a version of English which sounds more like Japanese English than British English: witness the growing Aussie habit, already universal among the younger generation, of expanding a terminal ‘r’ into a complete syllable, as in ‘One, two, three, for-wa.’)

At this stage, for all of us blow-in journos writing colour pieces to an easy schedule, it looked like a smooth cruise up to the next big story, starring Cathy Freeman of Australia and Marie-José Pérec of France — both black, both beautiful, but only one of them with all her marbles. Since her victory in Atlanta, Pérec had established an almost unbroken track record as a no-show, but this time she was here. It was going to happen. Meanwhile the atmospherics were practically fighting to get into the laptop: all you had to do was stick your head out of the window. Australia stood revealed not only as a sporting nation, but as a sportsmanlike one, which is an even better thing. Out at the trap-shooting, the Australian Russell Mark came second to the Briton Richard Faulds. Markie reproved certain elements in the crowd for cheering when his opponent missed, and praised him when he took the gold. ‘Great shot, great champion. Better man won.’

At Circular Quay and in Martin Place, certain elements in the crowd had been booing German cyclists as they flashed across the giant screen like furious lizards riding pairs of joke dark glasses. German fans had packed up their camp kitchens and moved out, perhaps in the direction of Germany. These developments were duly deplored by the television commentators. The certain elements, it was concluded, were a small minority. There seemed no reason to dispute this conclusion. Tolerance and generosity were universally apparent. Evidence of this was the adulation heaped on Eric Moussambi of Equatorial Guinea, the man who swam alone in his 100m heat and still didn’t qualify for anything except artificial respiration. An aquatic version of Eddie the Eagle, Moussie woke up to find himself admired for his grit — which, indeed, he might as well have been swimming in when it came to speed, although he would have found it harder to sink so effectively. There were suggestions that Eric was being mobbed by sponsors who wanted to sign him up to endorse their products: life rafts, water pumps, rescue equipment.

Even greater evidence of magnanimity was the public response to Prime Minister John Howard’s remarkable propensity for appearing in the background of any event, no matter how obscure. In Australia, members of the moneyed élite are known as silvertails. These, naturally enough, were to be seen at all the glamorous events, and necessarily Howard was to be seen along with them, but he was also there for the shooting, the shuttlecock, the hockey and the kayaks. As the tuneful but tongue-twisting national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was played to mark the winning of yet another gold medal, Howard’s lips moved as if he knew the words. Judging from these labial modifications, he could even articulate the impossible line ‘Our land abounds in nature’s gifts’, a collection of impacted vocables which has reduced professional singers to spitting on the conductor. Howard is a man devoid of style — as opposed to Paul Keating, who was eventually, and fatally, perceived as having too much of it — but he looks like emerging from these games as one of nature’s gifts himself, with a personal beauty which, although perhaps not rich, is certainly rare.

From the official sales points, ticket queues stretched for city blocks. People were ready to settle for anything: team skittles, formation pottery, three-day shirt ironing. They would even settle for weightlifting, which was very generous of them, because drugs had made it a farce. Bulgaria’s miniscule lifter Ivan Ivanov, not to be confused with Russia’s gymnast, Ivan Ivankov, was stripped of his gold medal, which was handed to the Chinese runner-up — an act of faith, when you consider the number of Chinese weightlifters who had got no further than Beijing airport, owing to their perceived dependency on the same joy-juice that had energized Ivan. There was more farce when two criminals escaped from Silverwater prison and hijacked a van full of Korean officials, who apparently thought it was part of the arrangements. But nothing could wreck the mood: so much was thrilling, and some of it was beautiful. In the men’s gymnastics, Alexei Nemov was an almost poignant reminder of how powerful the old Soviet Union used to be when its tanks could still get to any rebellious East European capital city in a matter of hours. His flips and loops above the high bar, which he seemed to use as a mere reference point, were so enthralling you had no time to wonder just how far he would bury himself into the floor if he missed. Even if Cathy and Marie-José never ran their race, there was so much to remember.

Nobody should have been surprised at what happened next. Perhaps the sunlight and the bonhomie had dulled our senses. Anyway, Pérec left the starting blocks a few days early and headed for Singapore, where her bad choice of boyfriend monstered a cameraman. After eleven hours of being questioned, the happy couple left for France, doubtless to rob a bank or burn down a hospital. Back in Australia, the media went nuts. A spokesperson for Pérec’s chief sponsor, Reebok, foolishly neglected to claim that Pérec would never have made it to the airport in such a short time if she had been wearing Nike.

The one who wears Nike is Cathy Freeman. Whether Cathy will now win in a walk is a nice question. It should be noted that she still has plenty of rivals left who won’t be walking, they’ll be running. An Olympics event is a competition, not a photo opportunity. There are at least four women entered for the event who share Cathy’s happy knack of running 400m in 49 seconds and a bit, and they won’t be carrying her burden. I don’t want to add to it by what I write — these despatches are appearing in two of the biggest Australian papers a day later — but I’m bound to say that Australia wants an awful lot from her, and we have only her supernatural self-control to thank that she didn’t catch the next plane after Pérec’s.

There is a fountain in Sydney’s Changi airport that Cathy could have soaked her head in while she wondered how she got into this. It would have been the second soaking in a week. At the opening ceremony she stood in a waterfall while ringed with fire: a great moment for Reconciliation, but from the athletics viewpoint not quite as good as being tucked up in bed watching television while Evonne Goolagong did the same job. Evonne was the first Aboriginal athlete to astonish the world. She was the one who started the break-out, when the danger was still too much real hatred rather than too much glib love. She was never in the Olympic Games but that was only because the Olympics had no tennis at the time. She was, and is, a true, fully realized champion. Cathy is not that yet, and to fulfil her destiny she now finds herself obliged to fight her way not only through fire and water, but through yet another, uncommonly colossal, media tsunami — the correct vogue-word for what used to be a tohu-bohu or a brouhaha.

In those circumstances, my own time over 400m is twelve minutes. If Cathy does better than that, she will be doing all right. Last night she strolled to the front in her first heat, which looked encouraging. But at the very moment when Australia shows signs of actually believing in itself as a mature nation (and it was only the belief that was lacking, never the maturity) it is a damned pity to see it missing the point about the crime against the Aboriginals. The crime is more insidious than we think, just as the only valid expiation is more elusive. The crime is to demand of one person that she represent a people, and the expiation is to respect her individual rights. But Cathy Freeman knows that, and has decided to go through with it. Perhaps Marie-José knew it too, and decided otherwise. We might have been too hard on her. She might be another example of the imperial aftermath working itself out, and not so well.

(Independent, September–October 2000)