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.