The 2000 Sydney Olympics
Since I arrived in Sydney in February, I'd been hearing about the Olympics every day. Would Sydney be ready? Would anyone actually show up? Would drag queens appear in the opening ceremony? These were the burning questions. When September rolled around, it seemed unreal that the games were actually happening. Because my office closed for the two-week Olympic period, I used the time off to travel around Oz but I still managed to attend 7 events in 5 days.
Thursday, 14 September
This was our last full day of work and nobody really wanted to be in the office. We took our lunch break outside on the central business district's pedestrian mall, Martin Place. This was one of the 6 Olympic Live sites that featured a giant video screen to broadcast all the Olympic action, a stage for nightly performances and DJs, and a number of porta-potties and food stands. We were most excited about the addition of the Shakespeare's Pies booth until we realized with horror that a meat pie that normally cost $3 now cost $6. This was the first of many Olympic price gouges, but we still enjoyed our overpriced meat pies as we watched video of the torch making its final journey through Sydney. Around 5PM, we rushed out of the office as the torch was coming down the street outside. There was an electricity in the air and people cheered from the streets and office windows throughout the city.
That night some coworkers and I took some beers and snacks from work, rationalizing that this was a team building event, and attended the free kick-off concert in the Domain, a large park. The park was filled with people by the time we arrived and we found a place to sit somewhere in the middle of it all. This concert was a good preview of a lot of the entertainers who would be performing at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. We saw the aboriginal act Yothu Yindi, teen star and Britney Spears-lite Vanessa Amorosi, indie rockers Lo Tel, and pop powerhouse Killing Heidi (huge teen band here with a #1 album "Reflector" that is set to be released in the US soon). The never-more-mellow Olivia Newton John introduced the acts but did not heed our cries for "Physical." We were well-pissed and danced around like fools to Amorosi's "Absolutely Everybody" and Lo Tel's "Teenager of the Year."
After the concert, we followed the crowd back to Martin Place for the premiere night of "Club Martin Place." The mall in front of the big video screen was packed with jubilant dancers and people stood on nearby newsstands and jumped off of them into the waiting arms of the crowds. Although it was crowded and hot, everybody was in such a good mood. I was truly sorry I'd be leaving for Alice Springs in the morning and would miss the first few days of the games. We danced like maniacs until the DJ stopped spinning around 2AM and then went back to our office and drank some more.
Friday, 15 September
After sleeping for about 3 hours, my friend Shona and I caught an early flight to Alice Springs to begin our 5-day Northern Territory adventure. I wasn't feeling too well and pretty much passed out as soon as I got to my seat. I can't even tell you the title of the in-flight movie-I was out of it and missed breakfast. Upon arrival, we met up with Jamila and toured the one-horse, many-horsefly town of Alice Springs. That night we watched the opening ceremony in a local bar with a rowdy group of German tourists and a spirited bunch of Aussies who enjoyed yelling "Piss off, John Howard" every time the Prime Minister was shown. I was awed by the opening ceremony, although I found the child star playing "Young Australia," Nicky Webster, to be a bit precocious in an annoying Full House child sorta way.
Tuesday, 19 September
Jamila and I flew back from Alice Springs and took the train to North Ryde to attend our first Olympic event, Women's Water Polo. I was impressed at how smoothly things ran. When our train arrived, shuttle buses were waiting to take us to the water polo facility. Our seats were toward the back so we couldn't get a good angle on the brutality that goes on underwater and we didn't see any swimsuits getting torn. We saw two early round matches. After the water polo, we went to Martin Place where aboriginal country artist Jimmy Little was performing. Jimmy sang a number of songs from his latest pop crossover album to a sizeable crowd as the evening's Olympic action played on the video screen at the other end of Martin Place. He's smooth like an aboriginal Tom Jones with a dreamy voice. We were hoping to get our groove on at Club Martin Place but discovered that the nightly DJ session had been canceled due to the chaos of the first 2 nights. There was just no way to maintain security in the open area. That's too bad, because the first night was really one of the best nights I've had in Sydney. It was chaotic, but it was chaos with good vibes.
Wednesday, 20 September
We got up early and took the train to Olympic Park. As we exited the train, a voice over the speakers said, "Welcome to Sydney. Sydney is a friendly city and these are the friendly games. Please say G'day to your neighbour." The sprawling complex was well-ordered and traffic flowed in a logical way, plus the much-heralded volunteers were everywhere to answer questions. Even if they didn't know the answer, they were just so damn pleasant, you couldn't get irritated. We went to watch handball, which was a game Jamila had learned about in Japan. I'd never seen it before but it was easy to follow and very exciting and fast. We watched two early round games. We cheered for the agile Koreans who gave the heavily favored Russians a good game although they lost.
Jamila had to catch a flight home that afternoon. After seeing her off, I took a train way out to the deepest 'burbs to Blacktown and then a shuttle bus from the train station to watch softball. Canada beat Italy in the first game and then China played the #1 seeded USA team in the second game. This turned into a marathon match. The game was tied 0-0 at the end of the regulation 7 innings. I sat through 7 more innings of overtime, freezing because I had forgotten to bring a jacket, dancing to the in-between inning music to stay warm, and cracking up when the sprinklers went on around 11pm. In the 14th inning, China scored a run and won the game, stunning the US team and fans. Those darn communists? The US would go on to win gold, thankfully.
I went to the day session of tennis at Olympic Park. The tennis center must have been about a mile from the train station, but I didn't mind the walk as I got to see most of the Olympic venues, the Today show set, the giant McDonald's, and a sea of humanity displaying their nationalistic pride. I watched Yevgeny Kafelnikov win on center court before checking out the action on the side courts. I'd hoped to see Mark Philippoussis on the side court, but the "Scud" had the show court packed and there were queues at the entrances. People were warned that if they left their seats to go to the bathroom or get a beverage, they'd have to queue up to get back in. This led to much unrest in the stands and people were crossing their legs to avoid losing their seats. I watched Goran Ivanesavic on a side court in a doubles match and then went back to show court to watch Monica Seles win her match in straight sets. I wormed my way into the front row and was able to get some good photos of Monica and of the Williams sisters who played the last match of the day. The amazonian Venus and Serena are awesome. They're pure muscle tennis machines. The sisters giggled together throughout the match over some inside joke. I was close to the action, but not close enough to hear what was so funny. Their opponents, a Canadian duo, pushed them a little but Serena and Venus sill won the match in straight sets. Afterwards, they signed a few autographs, but not as many as Monica who was the most gracious.
Friday, 22 September
I watched the US women's basketball team play New Zealand. This was not exactly a close game. I think the US won by about 40 points. I overheard a lot of anti-American remarks during the course of the Olympics, and I can't say I really blame Aussies and others for hating us for winning so much. But I heard the most bizarre comment during this game. An Aussie girl behind me said, "Look at that American player. She's chewing gum. Chewing gum during an Olympic game! Only an American would do that." I didn't realize that chewing gum was so tacky, but apparently it's an internationally recognized American stereotype. I resisted the urge to exclaim, "Look at that American player-she can chew gum and sink a 3-point shot at the same time!" After the basketball, I went to the Olympic store which had huge queues throughout the Olympics. While waiting in the queue, I listened to the Aussie music that was piped in around the Olympic park. They were playing "You Gotta Love this City" by The Whitlams. This song is about someone who commits suicide on the day Sydney is celebrating being chosen to host the Olympics. It includes the line "My city is a whore, opening itself to the world" which captures the ambivalence many Australians felt about the Games-excited to show off their city to the world but worried it will no longer be theirs and will be overrun with tourists. The tourists in the queue seemed oblivious to the song's lyrics and bopped around to the pleasant pop melody. Inside the store, people snapped up everything with a boxing kangaroo on it, along with traditional Aussie items like Driz-A-Bone jackets and Akubra hats, and of course all the Olympic paraphernalia. It was a feeding frenzy.
I proceeded to the Olympic Stadium for the evening's Athletics session. My boss had given me tickets and I figured they'd be good, but I was amazed to find myself in the 9th row center! We gazed at the cauldron and couldn't believe we were really in the Olympic stadium. Watching the Athletics is sort of a sensory overload, as races were going on while people were triple jumping, pole vaulting, and shot-putting. The triple jump heats were going on right in front of us. We also saw the shot put final. This seems to be the only sport where guys with beer guts can compete and actually win. The Finnish dude that won the gold wore a bandana and had a scruffy beard and could have been a Hell's Angel. He scrubbed up pretty well for the medal ceremony. The highlight of the evening was seeing Cathy Freeman win her first 400 meter heat. The stadium erupted for Cathy. The Aussies support their athletes like no other nation. Cathy and Ian Thorpe are national icons now. Can you even name 5 of the US gold medal winners? Leaving that night we had to wait an hour and a half to get a train while listening to endless choruses of the grating Aussie cheer "Aussie Aussie Aussie Oy Oy Oy." I'm impressed by the Aussie pride, but this particular display of it gets old really fast.
Saturday, 23 September
I took some of my Aussie and English friends to their first ever baseball game. It was the US vs Cuba. We sat on the lawn, the equivalent of bleacher seats and ate hot dogs and drank beer. There were several groups of Aussie university students dressed as Castro or wearing Che T-shirts and waving the Cuban flag. I found this pretty amusing. The Cubans jumped out to an early lead and the US team didn't come back (although the US later beat the Cubans to win the gold). Still, it was a nice night to sit on the grass, watch a game, engage in a little nationalistic cheering, and reflect on the cauldron which was visible across the park (see the orange dot above the stadium roof in this photo).
The next day I flew to Cairns and I spent the rest of the Olympic period in tropical north Queensland snorkeling, relaxing on the beach, and watching the Olympics on TV. I was sorry to leave the Olympic city but glad I got to see as much as I did. Sydney wowed the world and now that the Olympics and Paralympics are over, the city seems a bit depressed. Or maybe it's just the world's largest hangover?
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