When Sydney Ruled the World

I’ve been watching a lot of the Olympic coverage from Beijing this week. To be honest I’m not sure what to make of it all. So far the Games themselves have been good; the events have been much closer than in recent years and Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt have been outstanding. It’s a moment of great national pride for China and seeing their citizens happy and excited before the opening ceremony is something I’ll remember, even if some of it felt forced.

Yet I still feel uncomfortable about it. I was opposed to China hosting the Games when it was announced; I felt awarding the Games to China with its human rights record sent the wrong message. 7 years on I still feel the same way and there have been few signs of change, despite China’s assurances. What surprises me, though, is that many of the stadiums seem half-empty. Perhaps that’s the ticket prices or the security, I’m not sure, but with such excitement about the Games empty seats are the last thing I expected.

The security in particular bothers me and it just doesn’t feel like the Olympic Games… but perhaps I’m being unfair. I still remember the Sydney Games so well and it’s not a fair comparison. Sydney’s were the last innocent Games, before 9/11. The security in China is harsh but it’s a different world now. With the exception of allowing protests I’m not sure Sydney would be all that different if we were hosting the Games in 2008, not after APEC.

But the Games themselves have been excellent and they’ve brought back a lot of memories from Sydney. What I remember best about the Sydney Games is the feeling that surrounded them. The Games felt like our moment to shine, to show what hosting a truly global event meant to us. The torch relay was an example of that. It passed through many small countries first and when it finally reached Sydney, it was amazing! It passed right outside our street; the roads were five deep with people cheering and waving flags. It was an amazing moment and something I’ll always cherish.

When I think back to the Sydney Games it’s really a few moments I remember best; they went by so quickly that everything else is something of a blur. Like the opening ceremony. I remember a lot of dancing and horses and Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron at the end, which was spectacular, but if you asked me what it was about, I couldn’t say. I remember it was quite a strange feeling, though, watching the Games begin. We’d spent seven years waiting for them and watching them begin felt more like a dream than reality.

The Games were wonderful and I had my sixteenth birthday during them. We had pavlova and watched Susie O’Neill win a silver medal. Not a bad day at all! The moment we all remember is when Cathy Freeman won gold in the 400 m. Everyone was cheering for her and when she won, it was like a moment of healing. After all our history with indigenous Australians, Cathy helped to bring us together and when she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, it was a wonderful moment. Earlier this year our PM gave the first apology to indigenous Australians; it would not have happened without Cathy Freeman.

There are other moments I remember fondly too but what really sticks in my mind is Eric Moussambani’s race. Eric came from Equatorial Guinea; he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool before and could barely swim. But just as the race was about to begin, his competitors were disqualified and Eric was left to swim the whole race by himself! He was cheered on by 17,000 people and was given a bigger cheer at the end than any of the medallists. If that’s not what the Olympics are all about, what is?

Seeing Michael Johnson defend the 400 m and watching Kieren Perkins in his last race were also highlights. But finally the Games came to an end and it was a bittersweet feeling. We felt very proud but we had spent so long preparing for the Games and they had become such an industry (creating jobs, stimulating the economy) that it was strange to think they were over. But it was a great celebration as well. When Samaranch said that the Games were the “best ever”, it felt like this huge validation; like it had all been worth it in the end.

Looking back now I think we had this idea that the Olympics were going to change how we were perceived overseas, that they’d show the “real” Australia people never saw. But hosting the Games actually changed very little; they didn’t even make a profit, they were so expensive to run. What they did instead was to give us a new confidence. For two weeks the world had seen how proud we were of our country and the legacy of the Games is not that they were successful but that they helped to pave the way for the Australia we want to become. That’s something you can’t put a price on.

So I think I understand what the Chinese people must be feeling right now. The Games are almost over and it must be a proud moment for them, but also a sad one as it’s coming to an end. So far the Games have been good and they should be proud of that… but I still can’t help but feel that it’s come at a cost. I mean, just yesterday I read about a story where two women in their late 70s were sentenced to “re-education through labor” for seeking permission to protest in the zones China had set up for the Games. How are two elderly women a threat to the Chinese authorities?

While I don’t believe the Games are the right place to make a protest and that should be respected, I think the IOC’s silence on this is remarkable and that’s what I’m getting at. It awarded the Games to China with assurances from the authorities that they would improve human rights and that simply has not happened. The IOC’s silence is emboldening them. If the IOC goes on to name these the best games ever as is customary, it’ll be a farce.

Maybe I’m in the minority; maybe the Olympics are sacrosanct. But I think some things are more important than sport. What I want to take away from these Games are memories of a stunning opening ceremony; of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal and Leisel Jones; of the best athletes coming together in unity… instead what I will remember is an Olympics overshadowed by issues far greater than sport. I find that very sad.

I wonder what you think about all this? I’d be interested to find out.

Update: Just saw the closing ceremony. Jacques Rogge called the Games “truly exceptional”. I suppose they were. But they’ll still be remembered for different reasons than the athletes on display, whether the IOC admits it or not. At least seeing Jimmy Page was fun.

8 thoughts on “When Sydney Ruled the World

  1. I loved this post and well remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation…the whole collective feeling of being a part of something huge together as a nation…showing our best to the world.

    The feeling of everyone being a part of the games also….free to do their bit….the hospitality was a huge factor as well. I wonder if that is the same in China? You remember….we were asked as a nation to welcome overseas visitors into our homes and backyards…..would the powers that be want the overseas visitors to see the reality of the lives of their citizens? Certainly the case of the two older women would make one think not.

    Anyway I loved the video of the swimmer…do not remember that …so funny and it was fun again to see the spoofing by Roy and HG…so very Australian…without the inherent smugness of “that crowd” from the ABC.

    I agree with you about the IOC and China…if they pat them on the back and ignore the blatant lack of any meaningful protest…anywhere then shame on the IOC. And I am with you on the games being overshadowed by greater things…it’s a pity as maybe the Chinese people feel that too….their moment to shine and its overshadowed by so many negatives. We are coming at it from our western viewpoint…to them this has probably been a wonderful chance to showcase their country.

    Will stop now this is such a complex topic!

    CJ: It was a wonderful time, wasn’t it? It felt like one of the first times that we came together as a nation; for those two weeks, we were one! I don’t know if it could feel like that again even if we hosted another Olympics, but it’s something I’ll never forget.

    The hospitality was a very big part of it. I’d imagine it’s similar in China too; for most Chinese it’s a moment of great pride as they get to show their country to the world, so I imagine visitors would be well looked after. Whether they’re seeing the “real” China or not, though, I doubt. Even Sydney moved most of the homeless out of the city, so I’d be surprised if most of the poor and labourers were visible.

    I really missed Roy & HG this year! They might have been too controversial for Beijing but I think the Olympics need a bit of humour; otherwise we take them too seriously. I’d forgotten some of Eric’s race but I always remember the gigantic cheer he got at the end. We always love the underdog!

    Well, Jacques Rogge didn’t name them the best Games but he hasn’t been forthcoming with his criticism either. Maybe he will afterwards but it seems too late then. The IOC is such a political body now; its image is tarnished. But then these Olympics were the most watched in history. I’m sure that matters more to them and the sponsors than human rights, unfortunately.

  2. I believe the original Greek Olympics truly were sacrosanct – I think they suspended wars and conflicts to make way for the games. If only that happened nowadays!

    I’ve never really been a big fan of the Olympics; I’ve been tuning in from time to time to see how the UK is doing, but it’s never been essential viewing for me. I agree that some things are more important than sport. I understand that the games are a big deal for many Chinese people, and i’m happy for those people, but I’m honestly very disappointed by the way China has behaved recently. As far as I can see, they haven’t improved at all, and I’m not sure why they’ve even been allowed to host the games.

    The Olympics are a symbol of hope, joy, and pride for many people. I worry that China are undermining that.

    CJ: Weren’t the Ancient Olympics amazing? I was reading about them before I wrote this post and to think that so many city-states would enter into a truce, well, it’s just unimaginable now! And they were much more of a test of skill between equals then. They really did represent the best and noblest of traditions. I thought some parts of the Athens Olympics did a good job of recapturing that… it felt like going back in time.

    The IOC says the Olympics still stand for those traditions but I’m like you, I think China’s conduct has undermined all that. And the IOC just let it happen. I don’t think the Games should have been cancelled or anything but the silence has been deafening. Surely we can celebrate what’s best about sport and still say human rights are important? But I suspect this has more to do with money than anything else, unfortunately…

    On the plus side the London Games shouldn’t have any of this! I hope they’re good; they have a lot of potential and I was really impressed with the British team. Hopefully London can take us back to what the Olympics are all about. Plus Jimmy Page is involved! You can’t go wrong with that. 🙂

  3. I wanted to wait until the games were over before I said anything. I have warm memories of the Sydney games, particularly Cathy Freeman, of course—she was an inspiration to many, and Slim Dusty singing “Waltzing Matilda”. I didn’t know any Australians then, but I’ve always felt an affinity with your country.

    I knew that traditionally the games were declared “the best ever” but I probably wouldn’t have been listening as carefully without having read your post.

    I think it’s extremely significant that these games were “truly exceptional” (I agree) rather than “the best ever”, and I believe this will be discussed by the media. The spirit of the games was alive and well, in my view, as the Olympic spirit (as you said) calls a truce during these few days when we’re all together. It’s amazing to me that some of the countries there are technically at war with each other, yet, except for that one crazed random shooting, there weren’t many unfortunate incidents. Of course, one could speculate much on the reasons for that.

    The closing ceremonies were even more beautiful than the opening, although rather long (but I always think that), and it seemed the host country was quite hospitable. I’m always more interested in “ordinary” people’s daily lives than what their governments are doing; I wish people from China were allowed to blog on WordPress. If possible, I’d love to read what they really have to say about their own lives.

    CJ: So you remember quite a bit from the Sydney Games then, Muse? I’d actually forgotten about Slim Dusty – that brings back memories! I must have heard him sing Waltzing Matilda a hundred times and that was a great performance. Something else I remember from Sydney is watching North and South Korea marching as one team at the opening ceremony. It was an amazing moment; hard to believe it was only eight years ago.

    The ceremonies for Beijing were great, weren’t they? I don’t know if we’ll see another two like them again. The opening ceremony was beautiful and showed China’s history in ways I never expected and the closing was impressive too, particularly the memory tower! Perhaps that’s part of why I was disappointed overall, though… the message of the opening ceremony promised so much. But then the spirit of the Games was there all the way through… maybe that was the best I could have hoped for.

    If there’s one moment I’ll remember from Beijing it was when the Russian and Georgian athletes embraced. To think that with everything going on in Georgia that they could show such camaraderie and sportsmanship is remarkable. I hope that’s the enduring image from these Games, a message of life and hope… it would be wonderful if it was.

    I’ve actually found a few blogs by people posting in China. I’m not sure how; maybe they’re using a proxy to get past it? I also found some by Chinese nationals living outside China and from what I could read both seemed excited that the world would see their country in a new light. In many ways we did; it’s such a beautiful country and I’ll always remember how friendly the people were. I just wish we could get to see more of their lives too, hear their stories… maybe hosting the Olympics will change that, eventually.

    Hopefully the London Games will be good. Our family over there are really looking forward to it. Maybe Phelps will go for 9 golds! Who knows, he might even do it. 🙂

  4. Beijing, please move on. The next guy in line is London. I hope London can respect the minority rights and grant full autonomy to Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Gibraltar, Wales and Scotland. Welcome to the land of football hooligans and street-peeing, drunken Brits!

    And this is from USA, the country who committed mass murder of native indians and completely wiped out many tribes in their entirety.

    [rest of comment deleted by admin]

    CJ: I can’t believe you’re even comparing Britain to China. Last I checked Britain was still a democracy and allowed protests and media access. When was the last protest in China? Tiananmen Square? We know how that ended.

    If you’ve read my post you’d know it’s about my memories of Sydney, which means I’m not American. And I’d be careful laying blame – all governments have their sins. Your comment says a lot more about you than it does me.

  5. Hi CJ,

    I kind of agree with u..Anyway, would it be a best game ever??…It is a big money machine..I always watched the games though I like it very much….By the way, when I was young one of my dreams was to go at the Olympics but my path ended up to be different and I have no regrets…Overall, I think that we have too high expectation on the athletes to win the gold just winning a medal is an exploit..They battle over split-second it can be anyone’s games..I prefer the winter games over the summer ones which are too big and too crowded.. Money is so involved that we are losing the real sense of the olympics…

    CJ: I think that’s it exactly, CV, the Olympics are this big industry and for the IOC everything else is secondary. It’s understandable; when you’ve got millions of people watching and billions of dollars in sponsorship invested in an event, you’re not going to want to endanger it… I guess I’m just disappointed because I thought the IOC was supposed to be above all that.

    So you wanted to be part of an Olympics? That would have been amazing! Which sport? I can almost see you being a great swimmer or diver. I was a keen tennis player when I was younger and I used to dream about being in the Davis Cup and the Olympics… I still do! 🙂

    If one good thing comes out of the Beijing Games and stories like Phelps and Bolt, I hope it’s that people realise how much it means just to compete at an Olympics… we expect way too much of our athletes. When some of the Australians won silver, they looked devastated; they should have been celebrating! As long as you give it your all, that’s all that matters.

  6. I wonder if any country makes money hosting Olympics. That too, post 911 it has become way too expensive. Countries spend so much money – and all they get is the prestige.

    I remember CNN interviewing the Chinese people before the Olympics. The govt had given a lot of “guidelines” on – hold your breath – what colors to wear & what kind of clothes to wear. The Chinese were actually defending it.

    The Chinese govt had done some good work on increasing the awareness levels of their people though – they were “instructed” not to ask the visitors their age, marital status etc.

    Yeah, you are right. Our reaction to the host over-shadowed the games. No 2 ways of looking at it. I didn’t enjoy this Olympics as much as I enjoyed the others. I was too busy thinking about Tibet & Xinjiang to follow the games.

    CJ: It’s almost impossible to imagine any country making a profit, isn’t it, particularly post-9/11. Sydney’s were a different kind of Games and even we didn’t make a profit, so you wonder how China can possibly expect to make back the $40 billion it spent on the Games. Although with the strength of the Chinese economy, it probably doesn’t bother them that much.

    I didn’t know that about the clothes but it makes sense; I kept thinking it was strange how coordinated many of the spectators and locals looked, particularly wearing red. I thought perhaps it was national pride but that wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were guidelines. I can understand wanting to show your country in a good light but to control it down to the clothes people wear? I’m so glad I live in Australia.

    That’s it exactly. The whole Olympics just felt hollow to me; whenever I was starting to get into the Games, there was another issue or half empty stadiums… even with all of the amazing stories like Bolt and Phelps, it felt like a farce. Only history will decide if they were truly a success but most likely it will all be forgotten… hopefully London will be better.

  7. So gymnastics would have been more your thing? That would have been great. I’m always amazed by what the gymnasts can do; they look so graceful and it’s beautiful to watch. The diving is like that as well; I love watching the diving. Take care, CV.

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