And The Winner Is ...
It seemed a lifetime between "Syddy" winning the right to host the 2000 Olympic Games and the Games themselves - in many ways, it was a lifetime! Ian Thorpe was a hopeful ten-year-old back then - Grant Hackett not much older and some of Australia's gymnasts were just precocious lower primary school kids with school reports which boasted "promising gross motor skills" - no more than that.
In those first, heady days of the announcement it seemed as if Sydney was all set to party-party-party for seven glorious years; until Atlanta, that was - when we saw the blow-up kangaroos, the blokes on bikes and the Aussie Sheilas all in a row. Then the cringe set in. If this is what we were to show the world in Sydney 2000 then we'd ignore it or just knock it as only Aussies can - gently and effectively from within.
I should confess that I was neither a total sport fanatic nor an Olympic official. I was not an Olympic volunteer nor was I a sponsor. I lived and worked in Sydney. I paid my taxes in New South Wales and I expected to go on paying - probably more so because of the Olympics; but I wasn't complaining because I suspected I had backed a winner.
When the Olympic clock began to tick, everything became Olympic this and Olympic that. "2000 Plumbing" and "2000 R Us" appeared and disappeared. Radio was broadcast from the Olympic City and the weather forecast mentioned nothing about Sydney at all; just the Olympic City where it was all so fine and warm and full of new building projects and improved rail and road systems.
As Australians, we couldn't pretend the road to Homebush was a smooth one nor, in the State of NSW, could we boast trouble-free motoring. With so many metaphorical potholes, landslides and motoring organisation commissions of enquiry along the way it was little wonder the average Sydneysider became increasingly cynical about the whole Olympic journey.
It is a revealing fact that one of the highest rating television programmes of 1999 and 2000 on the ABC (Australia's Auntie) was "The Games" - a fly-on-the-wall comedy series set squarely in an imaginary S.O.C.O.G. (Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) building. It was highly cynical, frequently hilarious and all too often very close to a perceived truth.
One of the early questions was the opening of the Games. In the interim came the Republic referendum and there followed the inevitable toss up between a Royal and an Australian. The issue loomed broad in the mind of middle Australia. Somehow, Queen Elizabeth seemed inappropriate but, then, when John Howard put up his hand for the job it didn't seem quite so inappropriate - even to many Republicans.
This preoccupation with things Olympian deserved a medal list in its own right. Figuring highly in the heats would have to have been Australian indigenous issues, the international battle against performance enhancement drugs, the local and Olympic environment, sponsorship, transport, ticketing and, not least, that burning chestnut of political and I.O.C. hospitality - of the games and bid variety - past, present and future.
None of these elements came through to the finals unscathed. As icons tumbled, event after event seemed likely to justify the cynics' place on the gold medal rostrum. Yet, as their supporters chortled knowingly up a collective sleeve so, too, did each new conflict entrench more deeply in some people that very Australian philosophy of "She'll be right mate! She'll be apples." Then the torch was lit in Greece.
It wasn't until that torch reached Australia and began at Uluru - in indigenous hands - that the nation really began to sit up and take some notice. A new, almost miraculous, one hundred day journey had just begun.
It cannot have escaped the notice of those living elsewhere in the global village that the questions of Australia's identity and history were (and are) under the microscope both from within and from without. The issues of land rights, stolen generations, reconciliation and aboriginal cultural recognition are still at the very core of this nation's future. The past has been lived under what has been termed as "The Racism of Omission" - the leaving out of Aboriginal history from official versions of Australian history.
Many Australians, through their education and socialization, have been presented with a version of their history that has been sanitized - it has minimized or ignored events concerning Aboriginal people. The historian, W. E. Stanner, described the omission of Aboriginal people from Australian history as -
Earlier in 2000, the Sydney Harbour Bridge witnessed what can only be described as an overwhelming desire by the people of Sydney to say "sorry" and to commit themselves to making a journey of reconciliation hand in hand with indigenous people. An endless stream of Sydney and N.S.W. citizens - men, women, children, families, personalities and cultural groups - walked across "the old coat hanger", united in their support for the process of reconciliation. The size of this response not only surpassed expectation but it also sent a clear message to the Federal Government and it was a message repeated in city after city across Australia over the next few months.
Thus S.O.C.O.G., in planning out the journey for the torch and in choosing the torch bearers Australia-wide, achieved more for reconciliation in 100 days than the Federal Government could ever have achieved in as many weeks - perhaps months. Some conservatives in country Australia, meantime, swallowed hard and ran nervous fingers round tight and sweaty collars while the city cynics still struggled with all the other issues but had to concede the journey from Uluru had started well.
In many ways the progress of the torch round this island continent united a nation and whistled up a storm of support and enthusiasm. Where there had been little concern before, the flame ignited pride and not a few parties. Where the Olympics were already high on the agenda, it created fanaticism. Ticket sales went from a drip to a dribble then moved up to a trickle and finally to a torrent. Positives abounded. Teams and individuals were talked up. The hip and the hype left few untouched. Laconic praise began to meld with humourous observations; but there was still an atmosphere of vicarious delight as people observed the ups and downs of the city's transport systems or the vagaries of Sydney Airport's new baggage handling carousels.
If they hadn't already booked good-value overseas holidays, by the time the opening ceremony arrived, the cynics sat somewhat grudgingly in front of the television screen ready to cringe. En famille, with stubbies cold and plentiful, they joked about the different things they were about to see on bicycles - some of which would not stand repetition here - and they conjectured on just what had been dreamed up by the celebrated doubles team of Birch and Atkins.
Gradually however, as each segment unfolded, there was a kind of hush all over the national lounge room. Eventually someone just had to speak out. "Aw that was quite good. Colour and movement it's all there!" Only, it went deeper than that. In a quiet, understated Australian way, the speaker was placing the cynic's mark of approval on the majority of that global showcase event. Quite how much of the inner-culture would have been accessible to those without experience of Australia is debatable but, as shows go, it was a pretty good show. Indigenous Australians provided the central theme and the angle-grinders were a stroke of genius! Where else but in Australia?
The final moments leading up to the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron at Homebush Bay Stadium were a double triumph; first for its recognition of the contribution of women to the ideals and practice of olympism but, above all, for its honouring of Aboriginal Australian and consummate female athlete, Cathy Freeman, as the person chosen to ignite the Olympic flame.
The choice of Cathy Freeman was an inspirational one and one which met with the approval of all Australian cultures. As an ambassador for a united Australia she embodies the spirit and the letter of the age. And yet and yet, there were some Australians in country NSW who left the room when their television revealed Freeman as the person chosen to make that spectacular climb to light Sydney's Olympic flame. It is certain they were not the only ones.
Australia has come a long way from the negative public mutterings expressed in official circles several years ago when Freeman first paraded the Australian and Aboriginal flags together to mark her victory. In Sydney 2000, an ecstatic Prime Minister declared she was right to celebrate her convincing 400m gold medal win under joint flags. Australia has, indeed, come a long way; but it is also very aware that it has further to go on its own particular national journey.
The flame she lit may well have been the treasured flame of the XXVII Olympiad - The Millennium Games - but it was also a flame of hope for a new Australia - an Australia that is more united and more prepared to acknowledge the injustices of the past - an Australia ready to expiate the many guilts brought about by greed, monoculture, colony and creed. The winner is obvious. Let the games prevail.