Books: Even As We Speak — Postcards from the Olympics 2 : Thorpie, Hoogie and The Golden Lolly |
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Postcards from the Olympics 2 : Thorpie, Hoogie and The Golden Lolly

As was only appropriate following a quasi-religious experience, on the day after the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games the morning sky over Sydney was a silk sheet dyed blue by Fra Angelico. It was a blaze of glory marred only by the tubbily lurking presence of the G’day airship, the dirigibledoo. The media helicopters would appear again a bit later. At the moment they were sleeping it off with rotors limp. After a party that had lasted until nearly dawn, Sydney’s collective hangover should have screamed to heaven, but all you could see on the milling multicultural faces was uncomplicated bliss.

Down at Rossini’s on Circular Quay I substituted an iced coffee for my usual latte in an effort to offset the heat poured forth by Australia’s newspapers, which after months of preaching imminent doom were now all vying for the title of the biggest fan of the Sydney Olympics on the face of the earth. They had plenty of competition. Real, ticket-buying, fare-paying fans from all over the planet were parading past the ferry wharves shoulder to shoulder, or backpack to backpack: a slow-motion stampede in trainer shoes. Right past my table shuffled a platoon of Japanese softball supporters who were actually holding fans: white fans with little red rising suns. They were fans with fans. From the Netherlands, fans in studiously comical hats went by uttering the strange word ‘Hoogenband’, doubtless the Dutch way of saying ‘G’day’. But the papers weren’t just full of the sensational previous night. They were predicting a series of aureate tomorrows, which would all belong to Thorpie.

You can forget about that ‘Thorpedo’ stuff. That was just the strained coinage of an overtaxed feature writer. To the Australian public, Ian Thorpe is automatically known as Thorpie. At the age of seventeen, he has acquired the honorific diminutive, Australia’s hallowed masonic sign of universal spiritual adoption. Cathy Freeman, of course, was born with it, handily attached to her first name. But for the next week, until the swimming was over, Thorpie would outrank even Cathy. The papers assured us that Thorpie, already an icon, was about to ascend to the empyrean with his huge feet dripping chlorinated tears of molten gold, or words to that effect.

They were right, which must have been a big relief to them, because too many of their entrail readings, most of which portended an apocalypse for Australia’s place among mature nations, had already needed to be modified in the light of reality. A bussing disaster on the Atlanta scale had been gleefully forecast, and indeed, on the eve of the opening, a female bus driver had failed to find the Olympic Park at Homebush Bay, broken down sobbing at the wheel, and required counselling. But now the buses were running like trains. The reported hillocks of unsold tickets were shrinking by the hour. An Aboriginal leader who had previously hinted that the city might be reduced to steaming ashes of protest was now on record as having found the reconciliation theme of the opening ceremony a gesture sufficient to stave off mass destruction. The sharks that were scheduled to pick off the triathletes as they desperately flailed through the harbour (veteran sharks with yellow noses and swastikas on their tail fins, hungry for one more victory) had failed to show up.

With so little going wrong, there had to be a story in something going right, and Thorpie was the something. During the morning, his heat in the 400m freestyle filled the seats of the colossal Aquatic Centre, and during the afternoon his majestic win held the whole of Australia spellbound in the street, like the Melbourne Cup in the days when most of Australia’s TV sets were still in the windows of the appliance stores. ‘We have witnessed the birth of a legend!’ screamed a commentator. Filling the screen, Prime Minister John Howard’s radiantly ordinary face broke into a smile, as if his were the legend to whose birth we were bearing witness. In the streets of downtown Sydney, viewers numberless as the dust and high on Thorpomania took a moment off to convey their appreciation of the Prime Minister’s beauty. By the pure-hearted, affection could be detected in the storm of ritualized abuse. He will never be called Howardie, but unless he makes the mistake of slapping his beloved value-added tax on baby food he should come out of these Olympics smelling like a nasturtium. All he has to do is stand next to Thorpie as often as possible and think tall.

Piling nirvana on Elysium, Thorpie that night swam the fourth leg of the 4 × 100m relay and managed to beat out the Americans by the length of his arm — which is about the length of your kitchen, but still looked pretty close. Close was far enough. The invincible Yanks had been vinced in their fave event! ‘Ian Thorpe has shown us Aussie pride, Aussie glory and Aussie spirit!’ Either it was a different commentator or the same one had gone up an octave. At Circular Quay young people were sitting on each other’s shoulders in groups of three like dancing totem poles. It was only the start of the party. As midnight approached, young people did Circus Oz acrobatics over the crowd, furthering the new Australian tendency, so prominent in the opening ceremony, for taking to the air as if it were water. Wearing a little frock consisting mainly of its fringe, a sinuous girl twisted in a red ribbon high above our heads. When she momentarily returned to earth for a quick swig I joined her in her tent for purposes of research. It turned out she was an exotic dancer who had spent several years in an English circus before coming home. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this. What about Thorpie?’

There weren’t many wrinklies at the quay that night, but out at the Olympic Park next day they were there in force. In fact a lot of them were the force: many of the countless volunteer officials would look like bus-pass material if it weren’t for their sprightly white bush hats, kaleidoscopic shirts, and the smile induced by saying ‘Thorpie’ repeatedly. ‘What about Thorpie?’ I was asked by a woman who had been there when Murray Rose swam to a pile of gold in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. ‘Never seen anything like him.’ Since she had seen something like him, this was a pretty good measure of the hold he had taken on the public imagination. It wasn’t just the media talking.

On the TV screens another story temporarily leapt to prominence: the Romanian weightlifters had been busted for dope and were on their way home. In the press pavilion there was a wonderful rumour about why Channel 7, which has the games locked up — I have to tread carefully here, because Channel 7 transmits my programmes in Australia: great channel, terrific taste — strangely failed to screen their much heralded and potentially immortal images of Greg Norman carrying the torch over the Harbour Bridge. Just for that one crucial job, they had deployed a brand-new self-propelled gyro-stabilized camera with inertial navigation system, but its operator had forgotten to put in the tape. A suddenly chastened Channel 7 had asked its frozen-out rival Channel 9 whether they would care to loan their footage if they just happened to have any. Channel 9 opened all its phones so that the entire staff could give a two-word answer in unison. Apparently the camera operator was already at the bottom of the harbour, lashed to the camera.

This was all very fascinating but it wasn’t long before ‘Thorpie’ was once again the only word heard, except of course for the joke-hatted Dutch male fans who kept saying ‘Hoogenband’ when attempting to introduce themselves to an Australian female cop of outstanding beauty and size of gun. Australia finally found out what the word meant when Hoogenband broke the world record in his 200m semi-final. Thorpe broke his personal best in his own semi, but a pb is not the same as a wr. The final would be next day. Could Thorpe be beaten? Don’t be ridiculous.

Next day the image of Australia’s new hero was already on the stamps, giving many a wag the chance to announce his intention of licking Thorpie. That Thorpie might be licked by Hoogenband was beyond contemplation. Thorpie, it was explained, had a strong finish that would annul Hoogenband’s undoubtedly high velocity in the initial stages. But there was a whole day to get through before the race at night, with nothing to distract Thorpie-worshippers except a hundred other Olympic events, some of them quite interesting even though taking place on dry land.

There was news from the weightlifting. Either the dope-fiend Romanians had got all the way to Bucharest and back again in a few hours or they had never left the village. The latter proved to be true. Indeed they were still lifting weights, after paying a fine of 91,000 Australian dollars for the privilege. Would they have paid this fine if they were not guilty, and should they be lifting weights if they were? It was a mystery. So was the habit of Korean archery fans of chanting loud slogans at the very moment when the tensely concentrating Korean archer was due to let loose. Why were they doing that? Were they trying to kill a judge? And why was their archer not called Park? All their baseball players were.

If you didn’t have 91,000 dollars for a fresh supply of dope, the beach volleyball was the most effective time-killer. Here, at last, was a case of the press and the protesters having successfully predicted a catastrophe. The stadium on Bondi beach had been designed so that nobody inside it could see the beach, and was so vast that nobody outside it could see the beach either. Those inside suffered the additional insult of being subjected to the volleyball, an event whose already perfect stupidity was abetted by boom-box music and a screaming commentary. Many of the female competitors were very pretty, an effect aided by their attire, which tended towards a vanishing point between their inner thighs. The TV cameras behaved reasonably well, closing in for the butt shot only with the excuse that the girls made finger signals behind their backs. What the signals meant remained a puzzle, especially after they were explained by barely coherent experts, but one of them seemed to indicate that the competitor’s costume, to the detriment of her manoeuvrability, would shortly disappear altogether unless extracted by a gynaecologist.

The anxious evening was ushered in by vox-pops focused on the race. Suddenly elevated to the status of prime interviewees, the joke-hatted Dutch fans were saying stuff like ‘Hoogenband’s goana beat your Ion Torp.’ The idea was still a gag but only just, because when Hoogenband stood beside Thorpe on the blocks he looked just as big, had the same-sized feet and seemed no more overawed than a naval shell being loaded into a gun. What happened next was an education for everyone concerned except him, the Dutch fans in the hats, and all the girls in Holland, for whom the wonder boy is an Apollo propelled through a lake of champagne by the aching force of their desire.

Right to the end the Aussie commentators were still talking about Thorpe’s unbeatable finish, but Hoogenband had burned it off with his unbeatable start, and in the end it was he who stood on the golden lolly. In Australia when I was young, sweets were called lollies. The medal podiums on the Sydney pool deck look like big lollies. Thorpe had already stood on the golden lolly twice, but this time it was Hoogenband’s turn, and Thorpie stood on the silver.

Thorpie took it well, kept his poise, and on the next night came out of the call room undaunted to lead the Australian world record-breaking 4 × 200m relay victory. But his biggest victory was to stay in one piece on the night Australia found out he was mortal. He already knew it. The mature nation has produced a mature young man: a good sign. At Circular Quay, for the first time, there were people who left the party early, but they’d be back the next night. I heard one of them say ‘Hoogie was too good.’ Pieter van den Hoogenband had become Hoogie. There could be no better way for Australia to take over the world.

(Independent, September–October 2000)