Patrick Reusse, the great sports columnist for the Minneapolis
Star Tribune, once took a phone call from Vikings owner Mike
Lynn, who complained that Reusse's coverage of the team was
relentlessly unflattering. Reusse responded with the finest
definition of sportswriting ever uttered: "Mike, it's very
simple. When you lose, we make fun of you. But when you win, we
make fun of the other guys."
The important thing in covering sports is to make fun of
somebody, to turn every game into Mystery Science Theater 3000.
American sports take themselves so seriously (think of the Super
Bowl or of Mike Lynn) that we sometimes forget how fundamentally
absurd they are. What distinguished the Sydney Olympics from
every other sports spectacle in memory: The Games--those who
played them, covered them, volunteered to work at them--retained,
at every turn, a self-deprecating sense of humor. It is a
contagion in Australia. As a commercial for Seven, the network
that televised the Olympics in Oz, said of the home country's
tennis doubles powerhouse of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde:
"Individually they're totally useless, really. But put them
together, you've got synergy. And that's what Australia is."
Every night from 11 to one, Seven aired a live show called The
Dream devoted to making sport of the day's sports. Hosted by two
bone-dry Australian radio personalities, The Dream was the place
to see super-slow-motion replays of manifold groin-related
atrocities--judoists kicked flush in the nuts, water polo players
de-Speedoed on underwater camera, vaulters scrotally impaled on
their poles. Olympians lined up to be guests, and they too made
fun of themselves. It's called, in Oz as in England, "taking the
Last Saturday night, host HG Nelson took the piss out of Jon
Drummond while watching video of Drummond and the other sprinters
on the U.S. 4X100 relay team celebrate their victory. As the
quartet's endless, ludicrous series of glares, struts and muscle
poses played out on a monitor, Nelson simply glanced at his watch
and said, "It goes on a bit, doesn't it?" Drummond, seated next
to him, could only laugh and nod.
Smart move, because humorless nitwits--self-important American
athletes, for the most part--were booed or whistled down
throughout the Olympics, as when Vince Carter waggled a
Namath-like index finger in the air after the Dream Team's
shocking upset of...Lithuania. In Oz, cutting such people down
to size is a national pastime. It's called "lopping poppies."
Political correctness is still only a rumor Down Under. Pub
crawlers heard Kiwi jokes involving farmers, sheep and the most
famous of New Zealand oxymorons: virgin wool. When naturalized
Aussie pole vaulter Tatiana Grigorieva described the women's
field in her event as "a bunch of hot chicks," a nation reacted
not with shock but with something more appropriate: universal
Among the 47,000 Olympic volunteers were at least two
transvestites, dressing down in the official volunteer uniform of
khakis and seemingly paint-splattered polo shirt. One vol who
died on the job was buried in the hideous getup, made of a
mysterious wonder substance not found in nature. Train passengers
joked that they tried to cremate him, but the shirt wouldn't
burn. Do you not love this country?
The Sydney Games, I'm told, had insipid official mascots: Olly,
Syd and Millie. But during my three weeks in Sydney, I never saw
them. Instead, Australians appointed as their international
ambassador an overstuffed animal called Fatso the Fat-Arsed
Wombat. Fatso first appeared as a cartoon character on The Dream,
and the nation was instantly enamored of him. Aussie swimmers
Michael Klim and Susie O'Neill each held the marsupial on the
medals stand, which was fitting, for Fatso (as all Dream viewers
knew and as one newspaper explained) "s---- gold."
If you ask me, so does Sydney. It's not the most delicate of
compliments, but every Australian will understand.