A great day for Australian swimmers -- and brotherhood

On the first full day of the Olympics, our reporter comes upon world records, racial healing, a very nervous, very famous dad and a woman crying inconsolably in the stands.



Gary Kamiya
September 16, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

All of Sydney is still buzzing about Friday night's opening ceremony. The downmarket tabloid the Daily Telegraph ran a special edition Saturday with a headline intoning "Our Finest Hour," and the nation's two leading papers, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian, were scarcely less effusive. A few minutes ago I switched on the TV to hear commentators, exuding that enviable post-coital glow that seems to accompany inviting the world over to a killer party in your town, wondering what permanent effect the success of the ceremony would have on the national psyche.

The moment that touched people the most was the surprise selection of Aborigine 400-meter champion Cathy Freeman to light the torch. "Cathy's Honour," the Herald proclaimed over a solemn photo of her holding the torch. When Freeman received the torch from a procession of legendary Australian women athletes, including perhaps the nation's most beloved sports figure, all-time swimming great Dawn Fraser (known as the "Golden Girl" after collecting four gold medals and four silver medals in three Olympics), ran lightly up the steps to the great cauldron and ignited the flame, goose bumps ran down millions of Australian spines. (A staggering 10 million Aussies watched the broadcast, making it the most widely viewed program in the history of this country of 18 million.) The deed was seen as a powerful affirmation of what Australians call "reconciliation" -- a symbolic binding up of this healthy-minded, prosperous nation's only enduring wound, the tragedy of the Aborigines, their dispossession and their descent into the sad shadows of social pathology.

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It's not that easy for an American to understand why such a gesture, which costs nothing, could mean so much. After all, we specialize in grand racial posturing that usually means nothing. But there are times when symbolic gestures are huge, and maybe this was one of them. I don't know Australia, or Australians, well enough to make any pronouncements about their racial attitudes -- and no American is in much of a position to make judgments on another people who, in the course of settling their land, pretty much wiped out its indigenous inhabitants. Clearly, the fact that Aborigine activists have sought to raise the profile of their grievances during the Olympic Games -- building tent villages, soliciting journalists, trying without much success to stage protest marches -- helps explain why the reaction to the gesture was so fervent. But it may also be that symbolic gestures mean so much because, until relatively recently, the issue was buried -- or worse. As one of the two Australian journalists who kindly e-mailed me out of the blue and offered to let me be their guest during the Olympics pointed out, blacks only got the vote in Australia in 1969 -- and one of the country's leading newsmagazines, the Bulletin, had as its slogan until the mid-1960s the Lester Maddox-like phrase "Australia for the White Man."

So when a black woman received the highest honor her country could bestow upon her, it represented something real. And so did the fact that the whole country is happy about it.

Saturday night this country had something else to be ecstatic about -- unfortunately, if you're a Yank, at the expense of the good old U.S. of A. One of the most remarkable athletic achievements in the history of the Olympics, the United States' domination of the men's 4-by-100 meter freestyle relay in swimming for a staggering seven consecutive Olympics, came to an end by the slimmest of margins. I didn't see it -- I was watching a football match -- but it was all over the news. The Australian team, led by Michael Klim and the astonishing 17-year-old phenomenon Ian Thorpe, "The Thorpedo," beat the U.S. men for gold by .19 seconds, 3:13.67 to 3:13.86. Small consolation for the U.S. that they set a world record in defeat. Thorpe went on to break his own world record and win gold in the 400-meter freestyle as well.

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So swimming, and the Australian resurgence, is shaping up as a big early story line in the 24-screen multiplex thriller that is the Olympics. The Aussies are setting their sights on a repeat of Melbourne in 1956, when they achieved their greatest swimming victories.

Speaking of the whole nationalism/patriotic pride thing: I'm happy for the host country to do well, and I try to spread my rooting around, arbitrarily selecting that Bangladeshi swimmer, that Israeli javelin thrower. But if there's a choice, I usually root for the Americans. This surprises me a little: I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., hated the Pledge of Allegiance and during the Vietnam days used to not rise during the playing of the national anthem. But I got over it. I like rooting for the home team -- it's natural, and it's fun. Actually, the truth is that it's much easier to do it when you're abroad, watching the Olympic Games, than it is when you're being force-fed demographically calculated patriotism by some helmet-haired TV guy, an experience that can turn you into an honorary Azerbaijani in record time. When you're not at home, America doesn't mean Ronald Reagan or Visa card -- it means Chuck Berry and Lenny Bruce. The trick is to root without braying and hectoring, which many Americans have a problem with. Actually, I'm not convinced we're that much worse than the rest of the world -- there are just a lot of us, and we win a lot.

We'd better get used to something less than total domination. I saw the preliminary heats of a number of swimming events at the immaculate new Aquatic Park in the Olympic complex out at Homebush Bay. The American women did well in the heats and took the gold in the 4-by-100 freestyle relay, and they're going to collect their share of medals, as are the men. But neither the women nor the men rule the waves as they once did. Ukrainian Yana Klochkova breezed through her heat, then smashed the world record in the 400-meter medley, while the Netherlands' Inge de Bruijn (the world record holder who set a new Olympic record in her heat, breaking American Jenny Thompson's mark, which had lasted about eight minutes) is almost certain to take gold in the 100-meter butterfly and should also win the 50- and 100-meter freestyle. And then there's the great Russian, Popov.

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Swimming is a great sport to watch, with the ritual undressing, the long-muscled, exquisitely sculpted bodies, the impossible feats of endurance and speed, the passionate fans cheering on their heroes. But I must confess to being underwhelmed by the new skin-tight body suits, which supposedly cut drag. They give the swimmers who use them (they're by no means universal) a kind of Spider Man look, which is OK if you like Spider Man.

A much better look prevails in women's beach volleyball. I hurried across town using Sydney's first-rate train-and-bus system (logistics so far are going very smoothly: Olympic trains and buses are frequent and free, a blessing after the occasional debacles and exorbitant transportation costs in Nagano) from the swimming prelims, all the way out to the famous Bondi Beach on Sydney's eastern shore, to check out the elimination matches in that tournament. My quest: to find out why so many commentators were saying, "Can this sport be taken seriously when the contestants wear such revealing costumes?"

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The answer: It can indeed be taken seriously. In fact, I take it much more seriously than I did before.

Contrary to popular belief, lasciviousness and being a serious fan are not mutually exclusive. In fact, ogling should have an honored place in the pantheon of Olympic pastimes. Every sport highlights some anatomical region (or features athletes who seem somehow especially gifted in that area), and beach volleyball's is the derrière, large portions of which are apparently required by IOC order to be revealed by the costume. Since TV cameras, alas, now tend to avoid the butt-zooming angles used on such lamentably long-gone shows as "Where the Action Is" and "Hullabaloo," this fact can only be appreciated in person.

I had ample opportunity to consider this during the match between Cuba and the Brazil team of Sandra Pires and Adriana Samuel, a one-sided affair that ended up 15-4 for Brazil. The next match, however, was far too tense to allow any Prufrockian peach-eating thoughts. It featured the American duo of Jennifer Johnson-Jordan and Annett Davis against the Australian team of Annette Huygens Tholen and Sarah Straton. The American women were seeded third, the Aussies 22nd, but the Aussies gave the Americans all they could handle, taking them to 13-13 before finally losing.

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As it turns out, there was a very, very nervous onlooker sitting in the row ahead of me -- a lean, familiar-looking black man in a warmup suit and a straw hat. When Bill Walton came over to interview him, I started to realize who he was, and confirmed it with an AP reporter sitting next to me. It was Rafer Johnson, the great decathlete who won the gold in Rome in 1960 -- and was with Robert Kennedy when he was shot, actually wrestling the gun out of Sirhan Sirhan's hand. The reason he was sweating it out was because Jennifer Johnson-Jordan is his daughter.

Afterwards, Johnson, a dignified, well-spoken man who has become an ambassador for the Olympics, talked with a handful of reporters about what it was like to watch his daughter compete in the Olympics. "I was nervous. Unless you're a mom or a dad, you don't know what it's like," he said softly. "As a father, I can yell and scream but I can't help her. She has to do it herself. And she always has."

Johnson was particularly happy that his daughter marched in the opening ceremony. "She is experiencing what I did. There are no words to describe it."

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From there it was on to Sydney Football Stadium for a 5:30 game. For the first time, the extremely friendly and helpful Olympic volunteers didn't give me perfect directions, but an older man I asked for help offered me a ride in his car part of the way. These are the kinds of things that always happen at the Olympics. I told him Sydney was a great city and he beamed with the pride that all true Sydneysiders, like all true New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Londoners or Parisians, seem to exude. "It is, innit? I'm a Sydneysider born and bred, mate, and there's no place like it."

I jumped out and caught two football matches at another of the routinely first-rate new venues. In the first, a women's match, Australia was extremely lucky to come out with a 1-1 tie against a superior Swedish side. The second game was a thriller: Australia, needing to win to stay alive, and playing in front of a packed stadium of enthusiastic fans (painted faces, funny hats, green and gold and chants of "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!"), almost defeated the defending Olympic champion, Nigeria, in a game that degenerated into a near-brawl in which both captains were sent off for fighting. Australia could easily have won the match, which shows that the men's football tournament should be wide-open. The Nigerian forwards were monsters -- I think they already play international football, but if any NFL teams are looking for wide receivers or defensive backs, these guys are a blur.

It was a day filled with great images -- the impassive Rafer Johnson dying a thousand deaths under his rakish hat; his daughter yelling "Extreme angle!" telling Annett Davis where to direct her wicked spike that rocketed past a diving Australian; the Nigerian football player who after scoring hurled himself ecstatically into a series of forward flips worthy of a medal in floor exercise; the methodical, hydraulic, vacuum cleaner-like power of Thorpe. But the image that stays in my mind involved not victory but failure, and of a particularly horrible kind.

The Netherlands' men's 4-by-100 freestyle relay team, cheered on by their orange-clad, "Hey! Hey!" chanting fans, had posted a 3:18.32 in its heat, easily and comfortably low enough to go through to the finals. The fans were screaming. But then there was a long delay. The judges were looking at something. Something was wrong. On the video screen, they showed a Dutch swimmer diving as his teammate approached the wall. In his excitement, his urgency, his desperation to take his team into the finals, he had jumped well before his teammate arrived. It wasn't even close. Automatic disqualification. On the video, the Dutch coaches were shown putting their hands over their heads in disbelief.

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I looked over at the Dutch fans, just a few rows away. They were shocked, ashen-faced. A middle-aged woman who had been cheering was bent over, convulsed in sobbing. She was inconsolable. She wept and wept, tears running down her face. I don't know who that Dutch woman was, if she was the unfortunate swimmer's mother or just a rabid fan, but it made me think about that young Dutch swimmer who wanted like everyone else here, like all of us, to be a hero, and who left too soon, and who wrecked four years' worth of dreams and agonizing work not just for himself, but for his teammates, in one-tenth of a second. I hope he gets over it.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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