The International Olympic Committee’s slogan at the time of the Sydney Olympics was ‘Celebrate Humanity’. Australia celebrated humanity so well during that fortnight that in his glowing column on the Games, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly said “Let’s make it official, Sydney is now the Olympics’ permanent home. Who keeps dating when they’ve already had Cindy Crawford?”
The commemorative articles written on the 10th Anniversary of the Games have often overlooked the celebration of humanity that was so very palpable for those of us in Sydney, instead focusing on the celebration of the Australia’s collective sporting memories from the Games. It’s Freeman’s run, the Aussie relay boys smashing the Yanks like guitars, Hackett defeating Perkins for his first Gold, the Water Polo girls winning with their last-second goal, Pottharst and Cook’s win as their serve hit the tape and trickled over the net, and the efforts of one-Gold-wonders from random sports like Fairweather and Burns that are being re-visited to remind us of the event and all its glory.
But what these moments, with the arguable exception of Freeman, miss is the celebration of humanity.
10 years ago today, I attended the four quarter-finals of the women’s basketball. Walking all the way down Olympic Drive to the buses after the Opals had won, there was a merry volunteer giving instructions through her megaphone as to where we should be going. She would occasionally pause and solemnly inform the crowd that “The Woodies lost,” to which the crowd would collectively groan in quite genuine disappointment. Almost immediately, though, she’d spark up: “But we won a gold in tae-kwon-do!” The crowd would reply with a collective roar and move merrily on their way towards their rides home, laughing and listening gleefully as the next batch of random Olympic fans would be manipulated en-masse through the same routine.
Perhaps the reason that so many journalists currently re-living the Games struggle to truly express how well the event celebrated humanity was that all of the anecdotes that we have, like the one above, that remind us of how incredibly beautiful a time it was are so seemingly small and really had to be lived through to be truly appreciated.
For it’s not the memory of a few medal-winning performances that makes the Olympic Cauldron that’s now a fountain outside Stadium Australia such a glorious and beautiful monument and such a blissful place to re-visit. No, the youthful joy of being back at the cauldron, or under the dome which screens a range of highlights on a bunch of televisions, or at the line on the ground which measures out the ridiculous length of the winning long and triple jumps, is all about remembering the experience of being there, surrounded by thousands of other carefree people who wouldn’t have preferred to have been anywhere else in the world.
Perhaps it’s that word: “carefree”. When reminiscing about her experience of the Games, my sister – from whose Bondi flat I strolled on the first morning of the Games to attend the first session of the Beach Volleyball – said: “I honestly think of it as one of the most uncomplicatedly happy times of my life.”
And maybe that’s why it was so incredible. For there was nothing else to worry about – schools (and universities in my case) were on holidays, and the only thing to do was enjoy the sport and the company. Everyone you sat with or met was a mate, and everyone was so damn carefree. I spent a majority of my days at the volleyball, teaching various rules to people from a whole range of countries throughout the fortnight – many of whom, I’m sure, were thankful to have sat alongside this random Aussie uni student in love with this random sport and willing to chat about anything else to do with the Games or where they’d come from.
The Games were cheap enough for me to be able to afford see some baseball, handball, basketball, hockey, triathlon, and have a morning at the athletics where the only gold medal awarded went to a Polish bloke in the 50km “walk”. And in almost all cases, who won was completely irrelevant. The contests, the athleticism and the atmosphere – the camaraderie, the sense of sharing in history, and the collective sense of being carefree – was what swept us along in the glow of the Olympic flame. As the other great columnist from Sports Illustrated, Steve Rushin, said at the time: “Every day of the Games has brought failure or success, to be sure, but also self-congratulation on our extraordinary good fortune to exist in such a time and place. One hardly needs another excuse.”
In 2010, the best way to commemorate the Sydney Olympics is to sit in one’s lounge room and watch a couple of DVDs. Not the Official History, or the Opening Ceremony, but The Best of ‘The Dream’.
H.G. Nelson and Rampaging Roy Slaven, along with Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat who would shit gold on whatever he deemed worthy, were the men and the mascot that reminded us every night that everything about the Games, and about humanity, was worth celebrating. No person who experiences success, failure, breakthrough, controversy or embarrassment is ever so important that they shouldn’t be able to laugh at themselves. Through The Dream, the world saw our entire nation as being carefree, and we couldn’t have been prouder.
Steve Rushin signed off from the Games with a comment that brought a tear to this proud Aussie’s eye:
“Fatso (as all Dream viewers knew and as one newspaper explained) ‘s——gold.’ If you ask me, so does Sydney. It’s not the most delicate of compliments, but every Australian will understand.”
That we did.
As we are being constantly reminded this fortnight, one of the most memorable images of the Sydney Olympics is of a young female Aboriginal athlete sitting on the track, a look of utter relief, exhaustion and disbelief across her face.
But equally memorable was the image that closed a television series. The Olympic Flame burns bright as a cartoon wombat waddles across the frame. Once he reaches the cauldron, the wombat sits on it, extinguishing the flame. As the smoke clears, two words appear in the top half of the screen.