Books: Even As We Speak — Postcards from the Olympics 4: Second Week in Sydney |
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Postcards from the Olympics 4 : Second Week in Sydney

As the swimming handed over to track and field, after a week of Olympics euphoria Australia faced the arrival of the reality principle, in the form of black athletes and white moths. The swimming ended on an Aussie high when neurotic new boy Grant Hackett and bemed-alled veteran Kieren Perkins fought it out to be first over 1,500m, with the rest of the world nowhere. At Darling Harbour, one of the many open-air TV mega-venues, a crowd stacked up to the freeways cheered a win-win contest for the Aussies. Children with face and hair dyed green and gold looked as if they had been dipped in duckweed and dusted with wattle. When they rinsed off their make-up, it would surely be in the training pool at the beginning of their own careers: a purification before battle, as with the Greeks, the Romans and the Zulus, if any of those warlike peoples had a swimming squad.

From the hysterical media coverage and the heady week of parties in the streets you would have thought that the Yank swimmers had been well and truly stuffed by the home team. The medal tallies, of course, said otherwise. The USA had dominated as usual, and in its privileged second spot Australia had come close to being upstaged by the Dutch. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt like power, as if a selectively benevolent deity, leaning down in a blaze of sunlight, had dipped his finger into the wet heart of a single city and beatified a continent.

Then the sky darkened, and the moths came. They did not stay long, because the rain came after them, but they stayed long enough to remind the citizens of Sydney of what it really means to be outnumbered. As the athletes ran their first races in Stadium Australia, the moths swarmed suicidally around the light-towers like a particularly brainless blizzard. Suddenly I remembered when I had seen them before. Forty years ago, after an indeterminate evening of heavy petting with some luckless girlfriend on the North Shore, I had been hobbling back to town over the walkway of the Harbour Bridge when the air, with terrifying abruptness, came alive. Seemingly within seconds, the annual spring migration of the Bogong moths had settled on the bridge, turning it into an enormous fluffy souvenir. There were billions of the things.

And now, just as suddenly, there were the black athletes, and they were all from somewhere else. Except for Cathy Freeman, we didn’t have any of our own who could get near them. The Americans were in the vanguard of the invasion, and this time there was no blinking the fact. Blinking was all we had time to do as Marion Jones zipped through her 100m qualifying heat dressed in a full-length sweatsuit. It was clear that she could have done the same in a cocktail frock and high heels, although she did us the honour of partly disrobing when she ran for the medal. Winning over the same distance, Maurice Greene wore gold-soled shoes, and it was obvious that if the shoes had been solid gold with a hat to match he would still have finished first. With their souvenir value of a hundred thousand dollars each, it was generous of Greene to throw one of the shoes into the crowd, and prudent of him to retain the other: he could limp all the way to the bank. The red-haired boy from Wagga Wagga who caught the shoe will be lucky to make as much in his life as Greene makes in a month. And these were the repressed people of America.

Could our Cathy, representing the repressed people of Australia, keep up with this display of muscle? Ever since World War II, Australia, haunted by the spectacle of American abundance, has had to console itself with the thought that its own abundance is more justly distributed, yielding a better life. But then these super-cool black Yanks turn up in their designer shades and investment footwear, flanked by their agents, accountants, chiropractors and manicurists. They tour town in rented Ferraris. They make our television interviewers sound inarticulate. It was good to hear that NBC’s transmission of the Olympics to the US had been a ratings disaster.

In the light of this satisfactory fact, the Australian coverage on Channel 7 seemed not so bad: and indeed it wasn’t, if you accepted the requirement that any event with an Aussie in it had to be covered, even at the cost of cutting away from something more thrilling. In this regard, a notable victim was Britain’s authentically heroic Steve Redgrave, whose victorious coxless four was seen crossing the line, but whose appearance on the dais to receive his fifth gold medal in as many Olympiads was not featured. Having survived the ravages of time, he had succumbed to a television producer with an itchy trigger finger. You would have thought he rated a short interview, if only for old time’s sake. After all, he wasn’t an American. Whatever happened to Bundles for Britain?

Naoko Takahashi wasn’t American either, but there was no ignoring her. Not only did she win the women’s marathon with puff to spare, she was so cute that the cameras misted over as they tracked her through the streets of a smitten city. Sydney had once been attacked by Japanese midget submarines but this was different. Though Naoko was tiny too, she was armed with nothing but the unquenchable conviction that her netsuke dimensions were some kind of an advantage instead of a handicap. Cheer-squads of Japanese fans injured their lungs on the sidelines as she came pattering up the last hill and on into the roaring stadium, where she circulated like a pet mouse which had been sent into the Colosseum to make up for a shortage of lions.

Next day’s Japanese newspapers were evidence of what Japan’s women have done for themselves and their country in the long years that the ashes have taken to cool after the war the men started. Yomiuri Shimbun had her breaking the tape on the back page (i.e. the front page) while in the front of the paper (i.e. the back) there was a two-page spread full of nothing but her. In a culture where even the empress must devote her efforts to ensuring that she does not appear taller than her husband, the new marason winner is part of a feminist breakthrough that makes ours look like a walkover. In the light of that fact, the pictures were historic. Here she was in close-up, her teensy teeth taking a bite out of a medal the size of a vermeille mill wheel; and here she was again, hugging the runner-up. Snuggling up to the gaijin! It was a new world.

Nor, you can bet, will her endorsements be just for noodles. Look forward to the Sony Takahashi compact sound system, the Mitsubishi Marason miniature sports car, and any number of tie-ups with Panasonic. In my hotel, the Panasonic executives were still arriving and leaving by the bus-load every day. Their top man, Matsushita-san himself, the venerable daimyo of Japanese electronics, had already been and gone, bowed in and out by platoons of suits, but his fine nose for a market would already be on the case. Panasonic didn’t back the Olympics by accident. When I stepped into an elevator full of people wearing Panasonic ponchos, they were discussing Takahashi-san in terms they usually reserve for Elle McPherson. Helping to sponsor the games had been worth it to them anyway, but here was a bonus.

But if Takahashi-san meant a lot to Japan, Cathy Freeman meant everything to Australia. Right through the weekend, the television channels ran special Cathy programmes. As her big Monday dawned cool and wet, the papers were special Cathy issues. It was universally assumed that Australia’s future as a mature nation would be secured by her victory. Few and brave they were who dared to suggest that the possibility of her losing could not be ruled out, in view of the presence on the track of several other athletes all faster over 400m than the average journalist.

For the beleaguered minority who had retained their sanity, there was solace to be gleaned by the information — only fleetingly mentioned in the media — that Cathy herself had not read a newspaper in months. Her final would not happen until after eight in the evening. It was a long day’s journey into night. I spent half of the day at the diving pool, watching incredible things, and the other half in one of the crowded downtown bars, watching even more incredible things — TV commentators pushing themselves to the edge of desperation as they cranked up the tension with a gigantically clumsy verbal winch.

By this time the whole city had turned into a huge network of viewing parlours. One of the best was the foyer of the Qantas building, but you had to pretend to be a pilot to get in. Qantas staff were in there with glasses of wine. Circular Quay, however, was still the prime spot. In about half a square mile of usually open space, there was absolutely nowhere to sit down unless you had arrived before nightfall, but the giant screens had the whole story. Out at the track, Cathy peeled off her outer tracksuit to reveal an inner running suit, a sort of Green Hornet ensemble that would be hard to explain away if she fizzled. ‘In many ways,’ bellowed a commentator, ‘her fate may be decided in the next few minutes.’ The same words were probably the last that Mary Queen of Scots ever heard.

Her fate wasn’t decided, of course, although it might well have been had she lost. But she won, with that long, lovely stride that puts Puck’s girdle around the earth; and she will now be able, from a position of strength, to get on with the difficult business of controlling her own life when everyone she meets wants a piece of it. Blessed with the uncommon gift of public privacy, she will probably cope. Her post-race interview was perfect. ‘Something like this happening to a little girl like me!’ It was exactly the right thing to say, as a whole nation congratulated itself on its faith, love and maturity.

But Reconciliation will be harder than that. As Cathy (not our Cathy: her Cathy) is all too aware, there are thousands of Aboriginals who can’t run, and now they have nowhere to hide either. Mature, multicultural Australia’s one and only recalcitrant minority is likely to go on being buffeted by two contradictory paternalistic exhortations: ‘Stay as sweet as you are’ and ‘See what you can do if you try?’ Both are patronizing, and it is a nice question which is the more mischievous.

Just as we were soothing our collectively inflamed liberal conscience with the prospect of Cathy taking her place among the international community of super-cool black athletes, Marion Jones turned out to have a problem, in the shape of C. J. Hunter, her other half, or other eleven twelfths. The shape of C. J. Hunter takes a box of pencils and a large sheet of paper to describe. Let’s just say that he is a shot-putter who looks as if he could put a London bus on the roof of your house. The news came through that he had withdrawn from the games not because of a torn meniscus, as he claimed, but because of the presence in his body of about a thousand times the permitted level of an anabolic steroid. There was no reason, we were told, to suppose that Marion Jones had known about this.

The assurances seemed reasonable. Crouching in her corner of the bedroom while C. J. Hunter fills the rest of it, she could hardly be expected to keep tabs on what every area of his body is up to. But looking at Marion’s tearful smile, it was hard to quell awful memories of Flo-Jo in her final phase. Would there be no end to the drug thing? No, because there is no end to the big money. It was almost enough to make you long for an end to the Olympics. But not quite: in Sydney, nothing could do that.

(Independent, September–October 2000)