Blessings in Disguise As was true in that other Land of Oz, the most rewarding viewsin Sydney come when you pull off the masks and look behind the curtain

October 01, 2000

You should have been there. Truth is, you could have been there.
Visitors to Oz are told to pay no attention to the man behind
the curtain, and for one very good reason. Behind the curtain at
the Oz Olympics you see athletes revealed for who they really
are: you.

Behind a grandstand at the Aquatic Centre is the warmup pool you
don't see on TV. Wreathed by potted palms and patio chairs,
redolent of chlorine, surrounded on all sides by shivering
swimmers, it resembles in nearly every detail the pool beneath
the Holidome of the Holiday Inn in South Bend. Here, behind the
curtain, 16-year-old Megan Quann looks less likely to win Olympic
gold than to wait--per her mother's instructions--an agonizing half
hour after eating before playing Marco Polo in the deep end.

Meanwhile, behind an Olympic Park pavilion, four female Danish
team handball players nervously sneak cigarettes. Except for
their uniforms, they could be workers gone AWOL from their
cubicles outside any office building in the world. Behind the
high-security cordon of the athletes' village, one of the
shortest male Olympic basketball players celebrates his
extraordinary ordinariness. "I look like a rec-league player,"
says David Daniels, the 5'10", Jell-O-calved backup point guard
for Canada. "I look like someone you play with on Thursday
nights."

No wonder nobody is watching NBC. Instead of relentlessly hyping
how extraordinary these Olympians are, the network should strive
to show them for who, at heart, they really are: us.

As for those who look nothing like we do, even they know (or
ought to know) that their appeal lies in our common humanity,
that they are surrogates for the human race. "A hundred and ten
thousand people in the stands," Marion Jones said last Saturday
night, five feet from the finish line of the 100-meter final
she'd just won, "and I bet all of 'em wish they could be down
here."

Some of us were, in a manner of speaking. Eric Moussambani of
Equatorial Guinea had never swum before January, yet found
himself in an Olympic 100-meter freestyle heat before 17,500 fans
in the Aquatic Centre. When the two other men in the heat
false-started, the 22-year-old Moussambani was left to swim, all
alone in a middle lane, two epic lengths of the 50-meter pool.
That's the trouble with Olympic swimming: It takes place in an
Olympic-sized pool. And Moussambani had only trained--one hour a
day, three days a week for the past nine months--in a 20-meter
hotel pool near his hometown of Malabo.

Moussambani swam like so many of us do: His head was above water
at all times, yet he turned it from side to side in a
heartbreaking pantomime of Olympic champions. When it appeared
that on his enervating return lap, Moussambani might drown, a
radio announcer in the press tribune began to remove his shirt in
anticipation of making a rescue. But Moussambani finally
dog-paddled home--to the loudest cheers the Games had yet heard--in
1:52.72, just 1:04.88 off the world record. "I want to send hugs
and kisses to the crowd," said Eric the Eel, as the Aussie papers
have taken to calling him, "because it was their cheering that
kept me going."

Inevitably, the London Mirror a few days later paid Moussambani
to race one of its correspondents in a Sydney municipal pool. The
sportswriter lost, but he can be forgiven his delusional
aspirations, for these Olympics have made every one of us feel
Olympian.

Deep down, we humans are all the same. Come to think of it, on
the surface the same holds true: Ivan Ivanov (Bulgarian
weightlifter) was last week disqualified for using drugs, whereas
Ivan Ivanov (Kyrgyz swimmer) was disqualified for false-starting.
And don't get us started on Ivan Ivankov (Belarussian gymnast),
who finished fourth in the men's all-around despite having
appeared, on the cover of this magazine, painted head to toe in
gold.

Which is just about the state in which we now find Australia, a
nation of 18.7 million people that as of Monday had--absurdly--won
43 medals, 12 of them gold. (Australia won five medals total in
1976.) Oz has, moreover, charmed the pants off its visitors.
Literally so: Sydney's legal brothels reported two-hour waits.
Players on the Italian soccer team celebrated one victory by
de-pantsing themselves and flinging their shorts into the crowd.
Speedo set Eric the Eel up with a slick new bodysuit. (The
goggles he wore were, at last report, fetching $1,775 on eBay.)

Those who are here don't want to leave. Those who left--Juan
Antonio Samaranch, for the funeral of his wife; Alonzo Mourning,
for the birth of his daughter--flew back immediately. Surely,
then, they can understand the plague of giant Bogong moths that
descended, like Mothra upon Godzilla, on Olympic Park last week.
Mourning so loves the city that he named his daughter Myka
Sydney.

Every night, 110,000 fans drain out of Olympic Stadium, many of
them spiraling down two corkscrew exterior ramps that convey
people counterclockwise, in compliance with the Coriolis force,
which makes ocean currents, among other things, swirl clockwise
in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern
Hemisphere. So why did the Wave always move clockwise through the
beach-volleyball stadium? Because so many of Sydney's citizens
last week were from everywhere else on the planet.

Every visitor--whether topknotted, turbaned or fezzed--will go home
with the same photograph. All over Olympic Park the planet's
populace held high its right hands, in imitation of the Statue of
Liberty, because a picture snapped from certain angles on Olympic
Boulevard made it appear that you were holding aloft, like
Liberty's torch, the Olympic cauldron.

Thus we could know, fractionally, how Cathy Freeman felt in the
opening ceremonies. That's all we want: To see a tiny bit of
ourselves reflected in, say, the world's fastest man. Maurice
Greene seemed to recognize that on Saturday night, saying of his
victory in the 100 meters, "I can't think of any words to help
you feel what I'm feeling right now."

But of course he didn't need to, because anyone with sufficient
stamina and sense of humor could experience joy at every turn
last week in Sydney. "I want to go out and get drunk," said
serial medal-winner Pieter van den Hoogenband, whose phenomenal
name is most easily remembered if you sing it, after three tins
of Victoria Bitter, to the tune of Camptown Races, so that the
flying Dutchman becomes: "Pieter van den Hoogenband?/Doo-dah,
doo-dah/Pieter van den Hoogenband/Oh-dee-doo-dah-day."

Embedded in the walkway on Circular Quay--which runs along the
inexpressibly beautiful inlet between the Opera House and
Harbour Bridge--are bronze plaques devoted to (of all people)
writers. On Friday, Dream Teamer Vince Carter walked right over
the marker honoring Kylie Tennant, which quotes two lines from
the Australian author: "To be born is to be lucky. Later, life
may prove a failure or success...but that life is there should
be a matter of congratulation, daily renewed."

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. It is enough, in the words of the IOC's
image-burnishing commercial tag line that is everywhere at these
Games, to "Celebrate Humanity." Which explains why cell phones
were playing Bach all over Sydney. Or why a machinist named
Darren Grech secretly painted his initials on the Olympic
cauldron at two o'clock on the morning of the opening ceremonies
and then felt his knuckle hair stand on end 16 hours later as his
monogram rose into the night before 3.7 billion television
viewers.

Who could blame him? Lose the single sculls gold medal by one
hundredth of a second, as Bulgarian rower Rumyana Neykova did,
and the cliche that every second counts in life becomes
grotesquely inadequate. Every hundredth of a second--every 1/25 of
an eye blink--is cherished here. These Games take place directly
beneath the ozone hole, spreading above us like a snag in a
stocking. If the current rate of global warming persists, some of
the islands in the Maldives, home of Olympic swimmer Fariha
Fathimath, 13, will disappear beneath the waters of the melting
polar ice cap before Fatima is 65. When you face the prospect of
marching next to Atlantis in the 2052 Games, life takes on extra
urgency.

So every diem was carpe'd in Sydney. An Australian judo coach
named Gabor Szabo was suspended, bless his heart, for running
onto the mat to hug his wife when she won the bronze. The music
stopped playing and the chefs stopped cheffing and the diners
stopped dining at Doyle's when the 4x200 swim relay came on, at
which time the wait staff sat among the patrons in one of
Sydney's most venerable restaurants and watched, wordlessly,
while lobsters went cold and hearts went warm at every table.
When the home team won the gold medal in world-record time,
everyone--busboys, Japanese tourists and Sydneysiders
alike--stood and applauded a TV set.

One of those swimmers returned one night to the athletes' village
with a silent rejoinder to the tiresome request we all endure
daily at the Olympics. Which is to say, before being allowed to
pass through the detector, he was told by a security guard to
empty his pockets of any metal objects. Ian Thorpe fished from
his pocket two circlets of gold and dropped them, like a child in
a church, into the plastic change tray.

Perhaps you had to be there. But then, even those of us who were
in Sydney won't remember much from these Games. About all we'll
retain, when the torch is extinguished, are the names of a few
Nigerian athletes: Charity, Patience, Mercy, Gentle, Victor,
Blessing.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER HUMAN RITES Gordan Kozulj of Croatia pours holy water into the pool before swimming in the men's 200-meter backstroke final. COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. SPREADING GOOD CHEERS Contestants and fans wore their hearts on their sleeves and sometimes their flags on their chests. COLOR PHOTO: ROB GRIFFITH/AP HE CRAWLS ON WATER Moussambani was the center of attention when he tried out his new speedsuit in a Sydney municipal pool.

Every hundredth of a second--every 1/25 of an eye blink--is
cherished here.

In his heat for the 100m freestyle, Moussambani dog-paddled home
in 1:52, just 1:04 off the world record.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)