Books: Even As We Speak — Postcards from the Olympics 5: Olympic Crescendo |
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Postcards from the Olympics 5 : Olympic Crescendo

To prove that God is not mocked, for a day or two it rained on the Sydney Olympics, and there was a sense of divine retribution for too much profane enjoyment. Drugs were threatening to spoil the party. Everyone agreed that it was the best party ever, but worshippers of the golden calf thought the same. Then Moses made them melt it down and drink it.

C. J. Hunter, the mountainous shot-putting husband of American star sprinter Marion Jones, called a press conference to explain how an infantry division’s lifetime supply of anabolic steroids had got into him by accident. To help defend his innocence, he was attended by Johnny Cochran, the very mouthpiece who had shown us how the Los Angeles police framed O. J. Simpson, and who would soon, presumably, show us how the International Olympic Committee had backed up a tanker of nandrolone to C. J.’s condo and transferred its contents to his sleeping form by intravenous injection at dead of night.

As the stunned Australian press looked on, it became apparent that C. J. Hunter and Johnny Cochran were made for each other. C. J. burst into tears, Johnny railed against injustice, and the combined effect was enough to persuade you that the Olympic movement was so far gone into pharmaceutical hell that there was nothing to do except pour concrete over the whole deal, surround it with a barbed-wire fence, and put up signs warning children that if they played there they would have to be hunted down and shot.

As if things weren’t dismal enough, Romania’s teeny-bopper gymnast Andreea Raducan was stripped of her gold medal for swallowing a cough drop prescribed by her team physician, the aptly named Dr Dill. This seemed unfair until her appeal to a higher authority was rejected with draconian hauteur. ‘The anti-doping code,’ droned a man with an all-purpose international accent, ‘must be enforced without compromise.’ Andreea, it was explained, was so tiny that a single one of Dr Dill’s pills was enough to multiply her muscle-tone like a Benzedrine inhaler up the nose of a performing flea.

‘I don’t make nothing wrong,’ wailed Andreea, touchingly missing the point. It not only sounded unfair, it was unfair, and in that fact lay salvation. Sydney would be the games where the drug thing hit the wall, no matter what the cost. A few Bulgarian kayak paddlers who had tested positive might still be paddling their kayaks, but apparently there were technical reasons for that. (Perhaps they had put on so much heft that they could not be removed from their kayaks without surgery.) On the whole, however, this was a story of the rules being the rules. As Wittgenstein said just after he hit Bertrand Russell over the head with a billiard cue, a game consists of the rules by which it is played. No rules, no game. Drugs were out.

Sex, however, was still in, and it helped to save the day. In many minds an evil comparable with drugs, sex was everywhere in the Sydney Olympics, in the form of delectable bodies sketchily attired. Not all of these were female, but the ones most likely to arouse ire mainly were. I myself had been guilty of looking upon the female beach volleyballers with more attention than their diffident skills warranted. The Brazilians, especially, were too much, brushing the sand from their lightly tanned flanks as if aware that every grain of it was reluctant to leave. As they skipped, bounced, dived and tumbled without ever adopting an ungainly pose, I thought I recognized one of them from the Oba Oba club in Rio, but it’s twenty years since I’ve been there. Perhaps it was her mother into whose spangled G-string I tucked a ten-dollar bill after a samba routine that left every man in the room with his head in his hands, weeping softly for the evanescence of human life.

In the Kuwaiti version of the Olympic television transmission, the female beach volleyballers did not appear at all. The Kuwaiti television authorities, after studying the videotape with care, had decided that the dress code drove a coach and horses through the Koran. When the Kuwaiti female beach volleyballers take the field at the next Olympics, they will be wearing the full, theologically approved kit. Nothing will be visible except their eyes. Concealment should be a great aid to tactics: try guessing where a Kuwaiti female beach volleyballer is going to hit it next.

Meanwhile the heavily breathing Kuwaiti television authorities and I were on a certain loser. Female beach volleyball, although an abject failure on the mental level, was a raging success in terms of base desire. The Australian team, not just because they won the gold medal but because they were so easy on the eye, had the crowds around Sydney’s giant TV screens yelling in orgiastic self-congratulation. They made Sydney’s women feel beautiful.

Sydney’s women are beautiful. It can be fatal to say so, because feminist orthodoxy rules Australia the way Torquemada used to rule Toledo, but to dodge the facts you would have to tape your eyes shut and walk with a white stick. The ethnic blender that has been humming away ever since World War II has produced varieties of comeliness to boggle the Australian male mind. Unfortunately for the varieties, the Australian male mind has been slow to respond to this plenitude. It is said that the women of Saigon lost the Americans the Vietnam War, because their loveliness made the grunts think twice about putting their lives on the line. The women of Sydney, had they been present at the time, would have sufficed to get the Hundred Years War restricted to three weeks and the Thirty Years War called off altogether. Why do the men of Sydney not fall on them like satyrs?

There are several theories. One theory says that many of the more attractive men have eyes only for each other, and that the rest are subdued by political correctness. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the influx of international male visitors has brought Sydney’s females something they are not used to: appreciation. They are looked at in the street; softly whistled at; engaged in conversation. They are not sure they like it. They are not sure they don’t. Away from the pool, an Australian male swimmer is not necessarily a model of sophistication. An Italian male swimmer, on the other hand, could be a model for Armani. He wants to discuss the book you are reading. You forgive him for the way he touches your wrist while he admires the nail-polish that none of the local boys have ever noticed. Perhaps the Olympics should always be held here.

Square men of Sydney will undoubtedly retaliate by upping the ante of their amatory commitment. The air is charged with pheromones as never before, and even in daytime the giant screens of downtown work like the walls of an enormous discotheque, pumping out images of physical allure. In Stadium Australia, while Cathy Freeman’s elegant legs were in the very act of propelling her to glory, Australia’s star female pole-vaulter was hauling herself skyward to a silver medal. An exalted blonde goddess whose ten-foot pole looks like the one she wouldn’t touch you with, she bears the nowadays typical Australian name of Tatiana Grigorieva.

Tatiana and her husband (equally gorgeous, and also an Olympic pole-vaulter) have made a new life here, far from the tragic confusions of their background. Your heart would be melted by Tatiana’s early struggles if her beauty had not already broken it. Tatiana, or Tattie as she is fated to be called, has already posed naked for an upmarket glossy. For purposes of research I tried to buy a copy, but was told that it had sold out instantly, mainly to men my age who spoke out of the side of their mouths. I would hate to believe that the pictures were any more arousing than the effect she generates when she launches herself upside down towards the bar that topples at a touch.

In the slow-motion television image of her silver-winning jump, which days later is still being played over and over, she stays up there for an age, sidling over the bar and seeming to whisper to it on the way, as if promising to give it a kiss if it behaves. Would I were that bar, thinks many a poor swain, that she might misjudge her jump and fall with me in her embrace, e’en into yon soft bag. From young men with tinnies in their hands, a concerted, lyrical groan goes up. Australian masculinity is on its way back. In so many ways these games have expanded the national consciousness — or perhaps they have just given it an opportunity to express itself.

Australia has been promised by Tatiana’s management team that she will become a catwalk model. Fashion industry experts say that not many pole-vaulters have made the transition to catwalk model, but it can’t be as hard as making the transition from catwalk model to pole-vaulter. Naomi Campbell is built along the right lines. She might care to give it a try. She could keep the judges waiting until they go to sleep, and then just walk under the bar and lie down.

Beauty becomes more beautiful when it does something, and also more bearable; in line with the principle that sex, when sublimated into aesthetics, is purged of longing. The thought crossed my mind when Marion Jones crossed the finishing line to win her second gold medal, for the 200m sprint. Shedding tears for C. J. Hunter, she looked as if he had just sat on her, but in full flight she was a glorious thing to see. She is a big girl — sprinters of either sex are nearly always big — but has the air of having been scaled up from something smaller while retaining its fine proportions, in the same way that the Boeing 747 reminds you of the F-86 Sabre.

Like everyone in Sydney I have become a one-man kangaroo court on the matter of drug-enhanced sporting performance, because when all the competitors are suspect you have to make up your mind somehow or stop watching. I go by appearances. On Thursday night, after four days of deliberation, I finally found Marion not guilty. She was just too feminine. In certain aspects, notably in the area of the gluteus maximus, she tends towards the chunky, but not in the way that Flo-Jo did in her second phase, when she had biceps on her jawline like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since Flo-Jo was never busted except by an early death, you will note that I find her guilty by the same method that I find Marion innocent, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw the line where women start turning into men. If that’s their object, it’s their business; but as a side-effect of ambition it seems unfortunate, and to force them into it is surely a crime. By that criterion, the news that a whole generation of East German women athletes and swimmers had been doped to the eyeballs was the least surprising news ever published. Now that doping is associated with the big money attendant on success, it should not be forgotten that it started in the East, as a weapon in the battle for national prestige. Actually the big money was operating there, too. If the athletes refused to roll their sleeves up for the needle they were thrown off the team and back into everyday life, where there was no access to the special stores that spelt the difference between a life worth living and mere existence. The welfare of their families was on the block. It was hard to say no. But the men who made them say yes were criminals, and it is hard to accept that some of those men are walking free while an itsy-bitsy sprite like Andreea Raducan weeps for the medal she lost for a cough-drop.

In the middle of the week the sun had fought the rain, but on Friday it was no contest. The same bright sky that lit the beginning of the games was back to light its three-day climax, which would culminate in a closing ceremony tipped to be the most exciting thing the world had seen since the opening ceremony. The crowds that had retreated to the bars and cafés now filled the streets again, and once again the pixilated children out of a Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were everywhere, their green and gold heads popping out from windows, from behind trees, from above the rails of ferries. It seemed a silly time to be indoors, but that was where the diving was, and of all the aesthetic pleasures of the games there was nothing to touch the diving.

A lot of it hit the giant screens, because Australia did well for once in the only department of aquatic sport where success has traditionally proved elusive. One of our female synchro divers was the very girl whose name had caught my attention ten days before: Loudy Torky. It turned out that she had been born in Palestine. Once again Australia had profited from upheaval elsewhere in the world. Palestine had Yasser Arafat, and we had Loudy Torky. It could have gone the other way. Yasser Arafat could easily be imagined as an Australian diver, doing his famous two and a half forward somersaults with triple hand grenades. But such considerations shrank to insignificance beside the achievements of China’s great female diver Fu Mingxia. At the age of twenty-two she was in her third Olympics, and dominating the scene with imperial assurance.

Fu Mingxia is the woman that Madame Mao would have liked to have been, but Madame Mao had no talent. China is still a monster, and there can be no doubt that the thirty-seven athletes who were withdrawn before the games were doped in the first place as a matter of policy. But China has come on, and the clearest proof is that Fu Mingxia can practise her art unhindered. Madame Mao would have killed her. The commissar mentality hates talent with a passion, and Fu Mingxia has so much talent that it hurts.

Apart from her dignity, she is nothing special in repose, but in motion it is a different matter: sex, having risen to the aesthetic, takes off into the realm of the spirit. From the qualifying rounds all the way through to the final, every tower dive she did was like a falling ballet solo, as if Altynai Asylmuratova had thrown herself out of a window for doomed love. Coming down from ten metres with your knickers in a twist, if you hit the water with your hands even a tiny bit apart you might as well have run head first into the side of a house. The moment of impact is called the entry. With Fu Mingxia, the entry made the sound of ripped silk. She was adorable, and it was strange to think that she will never endorse anything, and that her gold medals will be the only valuable objects she will ever own. Unless, of course, China, like Australia, becomes a mature nation.

(Independent, September–October 2000)