In many ways, these last men got the best of it. They didn’t have the swarm of helicopters overhead that had tracked Abera in. But they did have a stadium that was close to full and people who cheered as they made their weary way around the track. If the Olympics are indeed about taking part rather than winning, these runners – though unrecognised in the final medal tallies – exemplify that idea.
So they got their big moment. As soon as Rodriquez crossed the line an official stopped the time-clock. Other officials moved markers off the track. They were like hosts clearing the furniture so that guests would have room to dance later. And dance they did. After the marathon, placegetters received their medals on the platform that would shortly become a stage for Midnight Oil, Yothu Yindi and INXS. Before the fireworks that started over the stadium and soon spread over Sydney, cascading on the harbour as music by Wagner and Mahler boomed out.
These Games have been big on symbolism. And certainly there was no shortage of moving moments in last night’s ceremony. But above all else it was a party. A celebration. David Atkins, one of the directors of the show, said that his aim was to bring together “an eclectic mix of music, performers, and all manner of Australiana”. This party, said Atkins, “will be imbued with a sense of fun, larrikinism and goodwill”.
Never has there been such an irreverent Olympic event. Los Angeles 1984 is remembered for massed pianos; Barcelona 1992 for Placido Domingo; Sydney 2000 went out with flyswatters, Roy and HG, Hoges, Kylie, the Shark and Slim Dusty singing Waltzing Matilda. Even IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch got into the spirit of the occasion.
The man who started it all back in 1993 by mispronouncing “Sydney” ended it by essaying some “Aussie Aussie Aussies” of his own. Oh yes, he also declared Sydney’s “the best Games ever”. He was once in the habit of saying this towards the end of every Olympics, but couldn’t bring himself to do it in Atlanta four years ago. He is soon to step down from the IOC’s top job, but can leave believing that Sydney has re-invigorated an Olympic movement that seemed mortally ill (mostly from self-inflicted wounds) not long ago.
Samaranch described the Games as “a glorious chapter in the history of Australia”. After thanking the volunteers and competitors for their efforts, he said: “These are my last Games as IOC President. They could not have been better. Therefore, I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever.”
“Thank you, Sydney. Thank you, New South Wales. Thank you, Australia. You made it.”
The Australian flag was carried into the stadium by swimmer Ian Thorpe, who, for the first time at the Games, did not wear a full-length body suit for a big event. The head of the Australian team, John Coates, said the selection of Thorpe in this role “continues the policy of selecting from the team the athlete who has been the best performed in the Games”.
After athletes packed into the stadium, standing where a football final had been played only a day before, both the Greek and Australian national flags were raised, signifying a handover of Olympic responsibilities. All eyes are now on Athens, which yesterday got some words of warning from NSW Games Minister Michael Knight. “The organisation of the Games stretched us,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to see the Games getting any bigger.” But they do – every time.
Even before Mr Samaranch delivered his own verdict on Sydney’s Games, praise came from three-time Olympian Alexander Popov, who praised their operation. “Australia has shown that it can really organise an event like the Olympic Games.” He commended transport arrangements for athletes and especially the friendliness of volunteers.
Michael Knight, NSW’s oft-maligned Minister for the Olympics, said that the Games had been made special by Australian people who “embraced the whole Games experience with warmth and good humour”. The aim of organisers, he said, had been to put infrastructure in place. “I always knew the Australian public would embrace the Games.” He said this on a day when Games organisers announced that 87 per cent of all tickets had been sold – thought to be a record. Tickets, long regarded as a disaster for SOCOG, ended up being portrayed as a triumph.
It was that kind of day, and night, in Sydney. A night when, once again, the weather was close to perfect. Wind that had played havoc with kayak races earlier in the day died down in time for all the fireworks. Nothing, it seemed, was going to poop this party.
First published in The Age on October 2, 2000
A joyous end to the Reconciliation Games
So many emotions, so close to home. The volunteers set the mood, just as they have for the last 17 glorious days, inviting those who arrived at the Olympic Stadium station to cheer their colleagues who had worked through the night to prepare the stadium for the closing ceremony.
So we clapped and cheered as we walked in a kind of warm-up for what was to follow. Then came the the end of the marathon and a joyous finale to the extraordinary career of an unassuming champion Steve Moneghetti, who managed another top 10 finish and beamed through the final 400 metres.
He described his final lap as a cross between a homecoming and a farewell.
But their were no favourites last night and everyone was a winner. The applause was just as loud for Gezahgne Abera, the Ethiopian who won gold, as it was for Callisto da Costa, the East Timorese who lived out a dream, as it was for Rithya To, the Cambodian who was second last into the stadium, his face contorted in agony, his hands held high in ecstasy, before he collapsed on the finish line.
There were no favourites either when the 200 flags were carried on to the arena; Ian Thorpe carrying the Australian flag among the first, da Costa, having showered and pulled on his tracksuit, among the last. Just an outpouring of appreciation from the biggest live audience to witness a closing ceremony.
An exception was made for Susie O’Neill when she was introduced among the 15 athletes elected by their peers to the International Olympic Committee as one of the overdue measures to bring that body into the new century, if not the last. The reception for Alexander Popov, the Russian who calls Australia home, was almost as sustained.
Delivering his last speech at an Olympic Games, Juan Antonio Samaranch predictably described these as the best games ever and there seems no doubt that there were. He also offered thanks to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, saying they had helped write a glorious chapter in the history of Australia. This, too, was a statement unlikely to be contested.
By definition, these were the most inclusive Olympic Games, for there were more athletes from more countries than ever before, and they made for the most inclusive national celebration in Australian history.
From the arrival of the torch at Uluru, to the unprecedented corroboree at the opening ceremony, to Cathy Freeman’s lighting of the cauldron and then the entire stadium, to last night’s fitting finale, these were the reconciliation games.
Last night was for partying, for Hills hoists on stilts, for blow-up kangaroos, for prawns on bikes, for floating mirror balls, but the reconciliation theme continued to resonate, almost from the moment Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the Aboriginal flag when he sang Affirmation.
Yothu Yindi sang Treaty, with its dream of a brighter day, as young Aborigines danced and Midnight Oil, its members wearing black with the word Sorry emblazoned on their shirts in white, performed Beds Are Burning with its powerful chorus: The time has come/ To say fair’s fair/ To pay the rent/ To pay our share.
The Sydney Olympics will be remembered for many great things but, perhaps above all else, for constituting a sizeable downpayment.