Books: Even As We Speak — A Note from the Offical Programme of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, 2000 |
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A Note from the Offical Programme of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, 2000

Mount Olympus, meet Sydney harbour: you belong together. After a century of modern Olympiads, Sydney in the year 2000, even more than Melbourne in 1956, is the perfect place to put the games back in touch with ancient Greece. The reason, which at first hearing might sound like a paradox, is that Sydney is the last place in the world where the classical ideal of white-on-white, empty-eyed austerity can be achieved. But there is no paradox, because the classical ideal never had much to do with ancient Greece. The classical ideal was hatched two thousand years later, in the eighteenth century AD, when every piece of sculpted Greek marble that came under the scholarly magnifying glass had long since lost its paint. In ancient Greece the marble statues were painted in bright colours, and those vacantly staring eye sockets we see in the museums had jewels in them. Ancient Greece looked nothing like a cemetery. It looked like fun. When the ancient games were on, the air was hot, bright and vibrant with music, and sparkling water was never far away. Does that remind you of anything?

It reminds you of Sydney, which as long as it doesn’t get too puffed up with seriousness is bound to stage the best modern games ever. Luckily, Sydney has never been a suitable place for sustained solemnity. I can remember how in my childhood the local population would manage to stay solemn for the first half of Anzac Day, and then the joy of life once again took over. Shutting the pubs at six o’clock in the evening, our wowser authorities did their grim best to keep the joy confined, but it would always burst out, even before the postwar migrants gave us interesting things to eat and drink. We used to do pretty well even with the uninteresting things: prawns wrapped in newspaper and a few beers, with the odd Lamington for a touch of luxury. Nowadays you hear a lot about what an unsophisticated life we used to lead, and in many ways that was true: but it was a blessed life too, fed with fruit, bathed in sunlight, and full of playful energy. A lot more energy went into play than into work, but that was inevitable. Too many of the best things in life were free. Hence the fact, much complained of by those who cared for our cultural welfare, that sport counted for more than art. Art was something you had to work at shut away. Sport, even if you were slogging to be a champion, could be pursued out there in the open air, the sole difference between you and one of those ancient Greeks being that you were only practically naked, instead of naked.

Australians worshipped sports champions as a way of giving thanks for the land we lived in. In a vociferously egalitarian culture, to praise the tall poppy was an activity rarely well received even by the poppy, which sensibly feared for its vulnerable stem. Even today, Australians can feel uncomfortable about singling themselves out: it might be taken for conceit. But our athletes were assumed to be personally no more ambitious than Phar Lap, who ran fast because it was in his nature, having been born under the Southern Cross. Yes, our medal-winning swimmers were remarkable, but weren’t we all remarkable swimmers? At the baths, the champion was just the one who charged up and down the pool all day while we hung around the sandpit with the girls. We all thought of ourselves as sports experts simply for having been born here. We could talk about the finer points of a sport as if it were an art.

Looking back on it, I can’t see that we were wrong. Pundits who bewailed Australia’s philistinism were missing the point. Culture was not to be had by elevating our pretensions, but by broadening our range of spontaneous enjoyment. And that was exactly how it happened. Music had always been a natural form of Australian expression. Long before the First Fleet arrived, there had been music in the air. And any singing teacher will tell you that merely to grow up speaking with an Australian accent equals ten years of free lessons in how to place the centre of the voice up there where it belongs, just behind the nose. Back before World War I, the Australian Impressionists had already proved that their country was a natural open-air studio. Literature was longer on the way because it had further to come: requiring more thought, it was more easily discouraged, and only in recent years have our writers begun to carry themselves with the confidence of our painters and musicians — which is to say, with the same confidence as our athletes, who have always wanted to take on the world, and always known that there is nothing incongruous in such a wish.

There ought to be, of course: though a big country on the map, we are a small one by population. But history doesn’t work that way. Most of the nations big enough to do even better than Australia in the Olympics of the last century would have given, at the end of it, an awful lot to have been called back and asked to start again. We, too, had to fight to stay alive, but our social fabric stayed in one piece, and with the help of many who escaped from less lucky places it grew to maturity in a way that has made us the envy of the world — a nation where all the creative possibilities of life can flourish at once, and so reveal themselves to be more complementary than opposed. There never was a real opposition between sports and arts; there only appeared to be; and now we can see for a fact how they join up. All we have to do is look at these buildings and their natural setting, and look forward to the voices of the children’s choirs. The Sydney Olympics are already an aesthetic event before a single starting pistol is fired. If the ancient Greeks could have seen this, they would have said: yes, that’s it. That’s the classical ideal. You’ve got it right at last.