Torch Song

Sept. 25, 2000
Sept. 25, 2000

Table of Contents
Sept. 25, 2000

Photo Credits: Billy Stickland/Getty

Torch Song

Cynicism about the Games ran high in Sydney until the Olympic flame approached the city. Then the citizenry fell hopelessly in love

See, this is what happened. These white guys, bunch of limey cons, showed up a couple of hundred years ago. Landed on this big dry plate of land, bumped into these brown fellows and, as white guys most places were prone to do, took care of them the way you would a bug that flies up your nose.

This is an article from the Sept. 25, 2000 issue Original Layout

Time flew by. These cons really cleaned up their act. See, if you didn't hold their crime sheets or that ugly bit with the brown fellows against them, they were really nice guys. But maybe, deep down, even their great-great-great-grandkids still held all that against themselves, because Aussies were the kind of guys who mumbled their national anthem. The kind who always held back a bit, who looked for the loose thread. Quick to poke fun at themselves and anyone who got too lathered up about anything.

So finally, smack in the place where the cons first landed, it was their turn to host the big family reunion that the world holds every four years, and, wouldn't you know, there were loose threads everywhere: lying and bribing bosses, broken promises and busted-up streets, until finally even the guy in charge of the Australia Family Association looked through one slit eye at this family reunion and declared, "There's been a rat in this pudding we've been baking. . .and we are starting to see the whiskers."

Months before the Olympics even began, half of Sydney couldn't wait for the damn thing to be out of their hair, a half million made plans to clear out of town, and the biggest boss of all, Olympics Minister Michael Knight, admitted, "The really sad thing is, for a lot of the public, the joy has gone out of the Games." Then, at long last. . .it got worse. Another Olympic boss went to Greece, where this whole business started a couple of thousand years ago, for this fancy ceremony. A couple of vestal virgins, if you believe that, were holding a mirror over a pile of dry grass to light a torch that was going to be passed from hand to hand until finally it would light this really big torch that always burned during the Games. The first Aussie to get the torch was supposed to be a teenage girl of Greek descent, a nice touch, but who snatched the big candle instead? The Olympic boss's daughter, and, boy, now the other half of the city was ready to stick the Olympics where the flame don't shine.

At last the torch reached Australia, and I still don't get what happened next. These great-great-great-grandkids of all those cons started crying, for god's sake, whenever the flame passed by. The ones carrying it, even former Olympians, started blubbering that it was the most exhilarating moment of their lives. Who knows? Maybe it was because there were only 19 million of them, so far removed from the rest of the world and even each other on this big dry plate of land, and they were dying for something to come along and connect them. They climbed on shoulders, on trees, on statues and roofs to catch a couple of seconds' glimpse of the wick, chased it on scooters, bikes and motorcycles after it passed by, and you didn't dare route it around anyone's hometown. One hamlet threatened to block the torch's progress if it wasn't included, another burg hatched a plot to filch it. In the emptiest stretch, five gold miners made a six-hour round-trip drive across the Nullarbor Plains to watch the thing whistle by at 4 a.m. on the Indian Pacific Railway. What other Olympic countries treated as a cute sideshow, these white guys started calling the most unifying event in their history aside from a couple of world wars.

The flame traveled across the outback by foot, by bike, by car, train, horse, camel, canoe, commercial jet and eight-seat Royal Flying Doctor Service aircraft. The oldest guy in Australia, 109-year-old Jack Lockett, crept with it through Bendigo. It went over mountain and desert and even, thanks to some hotshot techno torch, underwater, down with those psychedelic-looking fish at the Great Barrier Reef. Everybody was singing and grinning and high-fiving and blinking away tears of joy, and sadness too. A 74-year-old guy, a bicycle dealer from Muswellbrook, died of a heart attack minutes after his turn. A 12-year-old escort runner paused and laid a pink rose at the spot in a road where his seven-year-old sister was killed by a car. You should've seen this guy with no legs and one arm use that one limb to hold up the torch as if he were the last flag bearer left to storm Gallipoli.

Weeks passed. The torch's 16,875-mile journey across the continent wound down, neared the Big Smoke, Sydney. Sure, those hayseeds out in Wagga Wagga, Bethungra and Cootamundra might've gotten all frothed up, but the country's true cynics, the Sydneysiders already exasperated by the Games. . .you could count on them to fold their arms when the wick went by.

So what happened? The white guys, the ones who disappeared into their harborfront homes and didn't see the neighbors even if they were dying for a teaspoon of sugar, popped out of their doors and went over the moon! Thousands showed up south of town, at 4:30 a.m., to watch the flame depart from the spot where the first white guy, Capt. James Cook, landed. Front-page headlines howled over each new relay leg, and a newspaper published the photograph of every Sydneysider who toted the torch. Suddenly everyone was a hero, a little guy wrenching the Games from the corrupt bosses, snatching a piece of what he'd sneered at for the last year, purifying it with his own hands and eyes and tears, and calling it a symbol of ideals that parents want their children to learn about—community and sharing and love. Suddenly tickets no one wanted after a half million of them were secretly set aside for the fat cats were drawing four-hour lines that wrapped around city blocks, and the faraway country with the tiny population hurtled past Barcelona's Olympic record for the highest percentage of Games seats sold.

On the eve of the opening ceremonies the Australian dollar dropped to its lowest level ever against the American buck. . .and hordes were out on the streets knocking back beers and chanting, "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" A million people clogged the downtown torch route and blinked in awe at all the banners, the gleaming yachts and cruise ships, the Harbour Bridge twinkling with giant Olympic rings, the golden full moon and the 30,000 flowers shipped in aboard eight semitrailers. Sequined drag queens in tutus, pink wigs and flaming headdresses, bankers, brokers, Sikhs and Chinese dragons lined the streets 20 deep just to see this big matchstick, this idea cooked up just before the Berlin Olympics by the regime run by the biggest ratbag in history. That brought the estimated total of Aussie eyewitnesses to 15 million—more than three quarters of the country's population!

One guy, this golfer named Greg Norman, hauled the torch over the Harbour Bridge and declared that the only better moments in his life were the ones when his children were born. This other golfer, Karrie Webb, well known for matter-of-factly demolishing opponents from behind a pair of wraparound sunglasses, discovered tears streaming down her cheeks after she lit the cauldron in front of Town Hall and sniffled, "I think this is the best feeling I've had in my whole life."

It was a tidal wave now, and nobody could get in its way. Not the brown fellows, the Aborigines who months ago threatened the white guys with mayhem. Not a couple of hundred protesters who rattled up from Melbourne, where they'd freaked out capitalists earlier in the week at the World Economic Forum—but fizzled out here after New South Wales premier Bob Carr threatened the "bully-boy fascists" with jail and the wrath of six million people. What happened when the locals learned that buses carrying the Olympic crowds were getting lost, and 170 drivers had walked off the job in disgust? Six hundred volunteers jumped into the breach. News of more drug scandals? It was given page 18 in the paper and a shrug.

By 7 p.m. last Friday, when 110,000 people at Stadium Australia lifted their arms and sang Waltzing Matilda, not a skeptic was left in the whole damn city—they were going to be the most awesome opening ceremonies ever, whether they really were or not. . .but, golly, they were. Being in the largest Olympic stadium ever built felt like flying around inside a giant cranium crowded with Aussie hallucinations and dreams. This Ric Birch guy, the ceremony's creator, is a stud.

Finally, near midnight, it came to this: At the north end of the coliseum, at the heart of a 1,900-acre playground where pools of waste oil, pesticides and dioxins once stewed, where the 20,000 animals slaughtered daily in the world's second largest abattoir once shrieked, where so many unpleasant things the white guys did were buried under 13 gleaming sports venues, stood a woman. She was the granddaughter of an Aboriginal woman taken by authorities as a child and given to a white family, like tens of thousands of "stolen generation" Aborigines.

She waited as the torch passed through the last of 11,200 Australian hands, a couple of million tons of national baggage about to go up in smoke. See, if all that cynicism could be incinerated by the flame, then why couldn't the white guys feed Aussie racism and sexism to it too? Why not have the last six torch bearers be sheilas—whoops, women—five of them former Olympians and the last of them a brown woman named Freeman?

Cathy Freeman, the 400-meter world champion, took the torch, climbed a set of stairs and stepped into a pool beside a waterfall cascading from the top of the stadium's second tier. She bent and lit a circle of flame, which turned out to be the inner rim of a nine-ton platter of steel, the Olympic cauldron, which rose above her like a spaceship. Uh-oh—it got stuck for 3 1/2 minutes, a faulty switch, but who in this Sydney complained or disdained? It shuddered back to life and finished the climb to the 14-story stadium's top. Ahhh, what a lovely sound, the scream that comes from the throat of a burning rat in a pudding.