Books: Even As We Speak — Postcards from the Olympics 6: Olympics Finale |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Postcards from the Olympics 6 : Olympics Finale

As the games of the XXVIIth Olympiad ran out of events, the Olympic Village joined the party that had been raging all over Sydney since the torch arrived. Athletes with nothing left to do were whooping it up into the wee hours: a blast for them, but bad news for the marathon runners whose upcoming ordeal would be the prelude to the much-anticipated closing ceremony. Sole competitor in the first marathon in history, Pheidippides had been obliged to run the distance without benefit of sponsorship from a shoe manufacturer, but at least he got some kip the night before.

Press speculation was rife about how impresario Ric Birch could stage a finale that would top his overture, the opening ceremony that had stunned the world and given Australia confidence in its new position as a mature nation. Some of the other mature nations had already brought their teams home. When their empty chalets were entered to be cleaned, all too many of them turned out to be littered with syringes. Where the Bulgarians had been, the cleaners had to back out and wait for the army: there were needles in there like the floor of a pine forest after a tornado.

But the drug thing, like the bad weather, was by now a back number. Think-piece journalists raided the thesaurus to describe the sky: azure, cerulean, Arcadian, Poussinesque. This, surely, was Eden, and minus the serpent. The Germans and the Israelis remembered Munich, but if any terrorists were going to raise their balaclava-clad heads in Sydney, it was getting late. Either they hadn’t come or they had gone native — dumped the AK-47s and gone into business selling Semtex to the female discus throwers, who put it on their muesli.

When you considered that the Australian press, during the runup to the Olympics, greeted their advent as if an invasion force of Martian troop-transports had entered the earth’s atmosphere, the papers had done pretty well. Their praise for Australia’s champions might have bordered on the hagiographic, but the athletes of other nations got frequent mentions, and the photo spreads looked as if the United Nations had been reconstituted as a beauty contest. On television, Australia’s Channel 7 at least did better than America’s NBC, which was faced with the awful knowledge that it had paid more than a billion dollars for a ratings clunker, and would have done better putting its money into Battlefield Earth.

Channel 7 had no problems with the time difference or the receptivity of its audience. Apart from its gift for the ill-chosen word, its only but insoluble problem was with the events, which if they are to be covered fairly on screen must interrupt each other continually, thus guaranteeing that any given viewer, umpteen times a day, will be hauled away from something interesting to something soporific. By the final weekend the traffic in visual narcotics had thinned out, but there was still enough yawn-material available to ensure that anything gripping could be cut away from at the crucial moment.

Thrilling bike races through the crowded streets were interrupted by the thousandth transmission of the same commercial for Australian Mutual Provident, an organization which is apparently dedicated to arranging for its subscribers a visit from their future selves, who will assure them that they were right to dream of that little house on the hill, because the time would come when they would magically be able to buy it, owing to the inspired assistance of Australian Mutual Provident. Watching transfixed, as a man will when he meets a funnelweb spider on his way to the wood-pile, on several occasions I was visited by my own future self, who assured me that the time would come when the migraine induced by too many screenings of a transcendentally dumb commercial would melt away, after I had entered the headquarters of Australian Mutual Provident, tied up its executive in charge of advertising, and burned the place down.

‘The right to dream’ was a media buzz phrase throughout the Olympics, hanging around like a blowfly at the barbie. Reserving to myself the right to dream of kicking the set in, I took solace in the thought of the imminent return to the bike race, but instead the screen was filled with a man in a top hat riding a horse walking sideways, or six canoes with twelve men in them crossing the middle distance at a not very surprising rate. Channel 7 had a cable TV subsidiary, but on that one you were likely to be confronted with a couple of small boxers in headgear the size of sofas hanging on to each other as if they had finally realized that a slow foxtrot felt better than getting hit.

Boxing has no place in the Olympics, not because it damages the brain — if you want to see a damaged brain, take a look at a Taiwanese judo competitor who thought he had devoted his life to an intricate Oriental art form until a 400lb Norwegian fell on him — but because you can get it better elsewhere. The same applies to tennis and football. I would have said that the same applied to basketball, in which America’s dream team — a bunch of subluminary pros playing an exhibition tournament for charity — had been declared invincible. But by behaving as if their supremacy were beyond challenge, they made themselves so obnoxious that when the Lithuanians almost beat them the whole of Sydney went mad with joy around the giant TV screens.

In the whole of the games I saw no event more riveting. In the velodrome there had been an event called the Madison in which about a dozen teams tangled in a flat-out dogfight while the spectators, including myself, struggled for breath to yell with. When the British team crashed I had to prise somebody’s hands from my throat but found it easier after I realized they were mine. I had also developed an unexpected passion for Australia’s women’s hockey team, the Hockeyroos. Men’s hockey still strikes me as something a dweeb does to get out of playing rugby, but women’s hockey is a different matter, or anyway it is when the Hockeyroos play it. They also attain a surprising level of pulchritude for women who could take your head off with a stick.

On top of all that, as the linkmen say, there had been the last rounds of the men’s platform diving. Every man in the final could do the inward three and a half that Greg Louganis had astonished the world with only two Olympiads ago. With everyone diving to the same stratospheric standard, the medals were decided by the pointing of the toe, the shape of the haircut, the flaring of the nostrils. You have to see a dive like that go wrong before you can grasp what’s involved. Not all that long ago a diver got killed doing the inward three and a half. I watched the whole final as if Damocles beneath the sword were dancing like Fred Astaire. But not even that could touch the excitement of seeing Lithuania come within ten seconds of stuffing it to the dream team.

Despite what you may have heard, Australia’s spirit of all-embracing Olympic tolerance does not exclude the world’s only remaining superpower. But the Yanks are not always able to unpack the semantic content of a friendly heckle. It is a fallacy that Americans are without irony; but they do tend to take words at their face value; and it is misleading enough to do that with British English, while to do it with Australian English makes misapprehension a certainty.

Particularly when it comes to humour, Australian English is a richly ambiguous poetic phenomenon which must be interpreted for tone. When T. S. Eliot said ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’ he could have been speaking for American basketballers who switched Channel 7 on late at night and found themselves watching The Dream, the hit media experience of the Sydney Olympics. Hosted by two wits calling themselves H.G. and Roy, The Dream celebrated the Olympic ideal by inserting a pointed stick up its crazy date.

The Crazy Date was H.G. and Roy’s name for a certain legs-apart manoeuvre performed by gymnasts in the floor exercises and on the pommel-horse. The term depended for its evocative power on your being able to deduce, if you hailed from elsewhere, that a specific item of human anatomy was being referred to. You had to remember that the Australian scatological vocabulary is precisely visual.

H.G. and Roy did a short stretch on British television at one stage, but they are too fond of lingering improvisation to get going in a tight slot. (They would pounce on that statement: they are very rude.) The two-hour expanse of The Dream was ideal for them. They had space to do their thing, and so did their unofficial Olympic mascot, Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat. Fatso did his thing in the form of Olympic gold medals expelled majestically from his fundament as he wandered in graphic form across the bottom of the screen. Billie-Jean King, incidentally, was one American who got the point of The Dream exactly. She came on the show to read the news, and looked more than ever the way she always did at Wimbledon — like the brightest girl at the ball.

Though the mass media had not been as triumphantly awful as the occasion might have invited, the truly heartening coverage was in the Australian ethnic press. If you were looking for the Mature Nation, there it was. Admittedly the satellite digest edition of Bild had two screaming pages about how Germany’s long-jump champion Heike Dreschler had seen off Marion Jones. The main piece was headlined Der Sprung in die Unsterblichkeit: the jump to immortality. It featured a Junoesque picture of Heike in mid-Sprung, looking like a wet dream by Arno Brecker. There was no mention that Heike began her career in the old East Germany, the needle park of the Warsaw Pact. All this was pretty chauvinistic, not to say völkisch, but if you looked at Australia’s home-grown German weekly Die Woche in Australien you got a different slant. They were telling two stories at once: one about the Fatherland, and one about Australia. Germany’s obscure slalom canoeist Thomas Schmidt was congratulated for having propelled himself into the top rank (Unbekannter Schmidt paddelt sich in die Elite), but the main story was a hymn to Australia’s heroes: Cathy, Thorpie und so weiter.

It was the same with all the other examples of the ethnic press I could lay my hands on. El Espanol, which caters for the Hispano-American community, lauded Milton Wynants of Uruguay for his silver in the cycling and was moved by the humility of este excelente pedalista. And Edinenie (‘Unification’) praised Svetlana Khorkina for not letting her disaster in the vault stop her going on to win an individual gold medal. ‘Not what the Russian Princess of Gymnastics had dreamed of, but all the same . . .’ The word for ‘dream’ is particularly beautiful in Russian and so, of course, is Svetlana. There was a picture of her with her tongue sticking out, but she was doing it beautifully. The same paper, a few days before, had gone appropriately batso for Tatiana Grigorieva, now an Australian; but what impressed me was the connection with the homeland. This was the eternal Russia, the one that had been remorselessly assaulted for seventy long years by its own government: and now it was here.

They were all here, and in that lay the jest. As the other big Spanish-language paper Extra Informativo said in its front-page story headed (you guessed it) ‘THE RIGHT TO DREAM’, Australia is a country of the evolved world, el mundo evolucionado. From the political viewpoint, all that stuff about Australia’s delayed ascendancy to the status of a mature nation is an insult to millions of innocent dead. One of the oldest, most stable and productive democracies in existence, Australia was a mature nation when Russia, Italy, Germany, China and Japan were in the grip of madness. What happened to the Aboriginals was no bush picnic, but their sufferings are further trivialized when Australia is portrayed as a racist country, as too many of Australia’s subsidized intellectuals are fond of doing. The question of Australia’s institutional racism was settled at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. There was no Olympic Village to speak of and the citizens were invited to accept the visiting athletes into their houses. A full two-thirds of those who offered their hospitality asked for coloured guests, and the more coloured the better. After that, the White Australia policy had no chance of survival: and anyway, it had always been based on the fear that non-Caucasian immigrants, far from being inferior, might work too hard and do too well.

When the marathon finally got going on the last day, there they were again, working too hard and doing too well. In a light wind that made the harbour glitter like a tray of crushed ice, three men as black as Egypt’s night were cheered to the echo through streets whose every shop window held more wealth than the annual crop yield of the countries they came from. There was even a cheer for John Brown, the lone Brit who came fourth, although the television producer managed not to show him crossing the finishing line. Luckily the handling of the Olympics had outstripped the coverage, just as it had outstripped all expectation.

My viewing point for the closing ceremony was down at Circular Quay. On the second floor of the Paragon hotel I found my chosen window seat already occupied by my young friends from the torch relay, Polly, Claire and Nugget the pug-faced wag. Polly and Claire were dressed to kill. As I complimented them on their shoes, Nugget poured a litre of lager on mine, probably by accident. Communication was by sign language. There were millions of people waiting for the showdown and quite a few of them were in the room with us.

I could see the images on the giant screen but couldn’t hear much, which was probably a mercy. In the winged words of Juan Antonio Samaranch, what I can say? It off got to a start bad, with a vestal virgin routine scored by Vangelis that boded ill for Athens. The virgins wore Fortuny-style pleated gowns that stirred listlessly in the breeze, almost as if something were about to happen. Then one of the virgins slowly lifted a wreath. Nugget said they were the only virgins in Australia.

When the Aussies came on, things picked up, although the local pop music is more derivative than it thinks, especially when it has a statement to make. Sub-Springsteens and semi-Stones assured the Aboriginals that salvation was at hand. No doubt Cathy Freeman was relieved to hear this. Kylie Minogue, arriving on the wings of a thong, turned the night around, although her Abba song ‘Dancing Queen’ was a sop to the gays that they scarcely needed, because the Mardi Gras was in control out there like martial law. The Strictly Ballroom routines made you want to join in and thousands of the athletes did. Some of the floats were quite good, but not the ones bearing Paul Hogan and Elle McPherson. Hogan rode on an Akubra hat and Elle on a giant camera. Neither star had been given anything to do. At least Greg Norman hit a golf ball. In keeping with his nickname, Greg emerged from a great white shark. The relatives of two people who had been eaten by great white sharks off the coast of South Australia during the previous week were probably not watching.

I thought the Aboriginal ensemble Yothu Yindi was the best thing, but really it was no occasion for critical analysis. The maturity that Australia is right to be nervous about is cultural maturity, which can’t be had by wishing, but only through achievement — through creativity in all walks of life, from high art down to the small change of civil discourse. In that respect, the inspired contribution of the 45,000 white-hatted volunteer workers, many of them older than I am, was perhaps the most original feature of the whole jamboree. They were all charmingly helpful and some of them were outright funny. The visitors loved them. Small groups of Chinese would follow them around, confident that they were going somewhere interesting.

* * *

The Sydney Olympics, by synthesizing and highlighting what we already possessed, put us on our own map. We were already on everyone else’s, as a destination, a refuge, an ideal and (whisper it) a dream. The opening ceremony brought Australia together. The closing ceremony might have tried to show a united world, but it would have mocked the global tragedies that have given Australia its unique life and have made it the good place where all the earth’s agonies come to be assuaged, the last garden. The full story is too terrible to be told in a night. Better to let your hair down, and to camp it up.

The Olympics began with Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome, and they ended with Elizabeth Taylor’s departure for the airport. Next day I did the same. I have done so many times, but never with such regret.

(Independent, September–October 2000)