A visiting American, in Sydney for the Games, caught a Darling Harbour ferry. It was, like all ferries in the Olympic fortnight, packed to the gunwales. It was, like all forms of public transport in the Olympic fortnight, a gathering place for kindred souls. The souls were made kin by the Games. Having the Games in common, they were anxious to exchange words as well as Olympic pins. The American was soon engaged in pleasant conversation with fellow travellers. His views might have been coloured by the weather – some premature summer sunlight danced on the water and passengers discarded outer clothing – but he said Sydney’s public transport was the best in the world. The Sydney-based passengers, accustomed to their transport running late, not at all, or off the rails, scoffed at his naivety.
He was adamant. He said he had travelled everywhere. The only thing that troubled him about Sydney were the sharks in the harbour.
The sharks? “Sure, the sharks. I’ve been to the zoo and the aquarium and I’ve seen the sharks. I know they’re in the harbour. I hope this goddamn ferry don’t sink. I don’t swim all that good.”
A local offered that nobody had been taken by a shark in the harbour for nearly 40 years and that the only shark remotely likely to trouble anyone who fell overboard was a wobbegong. This was a species of shark that lived on the bottom of the harbour. Certain corporate Australians had referred to a greedy tax-evasion scheme popular some years ago as the Wobbegong Scam, the shark expert claimed, but the real wobbegong was virtually toothless. The worst that could happen would be that the wobbegong’s gums would gnaw at the American’s legs, leaving them slightly chafed.
The visitor was mightily relieved by this information, and highly amused. “The wobbegong? How do ya spell that? I gotta make a note. W-o-b-b-e-g-o-n-g.”
The conversation said a good deal about how Sydney and Australians coped with the Games and why they measured up so well. So many people have said that Sydney’s Games were the best ever, that Australians did not need Juan Antonio Samaranch to say it last Sunday night. Bud Greenspan, the official Olympic Games documentary maker, who has witnessed every Games since Helsinki in 1952, said the torch relay merited a perfect 10, the opening ceremony a perfect 10 and that the standard had been maintained throughout.
One problem could have been that we would be carried away by one-eyed triumph, by an orgy of self-love. It is proper to guard against this, just as it is proper to note that countries that spend money on elite athletes, such as the United States, China and Australia, win many medals while countries that do not, such as India, win few medals. It is worth noting that money spent on the Games might have been spent on hospitals and that, while Australia has lifted spending on sport in the past 20 years, it has slipped down the OECD list of national expenditure on education.
There is no denying, however, the success of these Games. Besides, any excessive self-satisfaction will be countered by a new maturity that flowered around the festival. This was expressed before the event by John Clarke’s The Games and every night by Roy and HG’s The Dream. Both programs were clever correctives to the hype surrounding the biggest show on earth.
Sydney’s success came at two levels. First, Australia finished fourth on the list of gold medals, with 16, and fourth on the list of total medals, with 58. Although this achievement probably ranks lower than Melbourne – where we won 13 golds and a total of 35 medals from many fewer events, and finished third behind the Soviet Union and the United States – it is admirable.
Second, the organisation of the Games surpassed the expectations of nearly everyone. Australians heard seven years ago that this city of such a grim past, settled by unwanted white men and women, was chosen by the world to splash itself across the future at the beginning of the new millennium. Sydney folk celebrated the announcement with boisterous, unashamed hedonism and blithe spirits. More phlegmatic Australians, wary of noisy displays of nationalism and knowing that the Games could not solve the nation’s problems, had their reservations reinforced by revelations of corruption surrounding the International Olympic Committee and by such local problems as the ticketing fiasco and trains running off the rails.
Although most Australians would have expected the city to muddle through, few who lived through the seven years of self-doubt could have expected such a glittering success. The opening ceremony – creative, sophisticated, funny, stylish, exciting and complex, with 12,500 performers and 5,000 behind the scenes – set the standard. The trains stayed on the rails. The buses, after problems on the first two days, ran smoothly. Citizens seemed possessed by a sense of civil respect and decency. Crime rates fell. Most of the homeless appeared to find beds. The Anti-Olympics Alliance protested peacefully – although illegally under the Olympics Arrangements Bill 2000 – over the homeless, the fact that Olympics money could have been spent on hospitals and schools, and the fact that their protest was illegal. Police allowed them their protest in Martin Place until their words were spent.
Who remembers that, a week before the Games began, the World Economic Forum in Melbourne was almost derailed, prompting very serious questions about security in Sydney? Much of the security in Sydney was in the hands of some of the 50,000 unpaid, unfailingly polite volunteers. The volunteers held the fabric of the Games together, prompting Dan Shaughnessy to write in The Boston Globe: “Sydney’s greatest tourist attraction is its population.”
The Olympic spirit finally infused the spirit of Sydney. If the Olympic spirit has been permanently touched by the spirit of Sydney, it can only be for the good.