The morning after

Australia comes to terms with the fact that reports of Ian Thorpe's divinity were slightly exaggerated.

By Gary Kamiya
September 21, 2000 3:34PM (UTC)
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Thursday has been declared a national day of mourning in Australia. Construction on the Colossus of Ian, a 300-foot-high statue of swimmer Ian Thorpe that was to bestride Sydney Harbor so that visitors would have to pass beneath his legs, has been postponed indefinitely, and a media-led movement to have the nation declare butterfly specialist Susie O'Neill "Queen of Heaven and Consort of Zeus" has fizzled.

Oh well -- there's always archery.


Reality has set in with a resounding thud after Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, who had already beaten "the Thorpedo" in the 200 meters, pulled off an amazing double on Wednesday by dusting two-time Russian Olympic champion Alex Popov in the 100 meters -- becoming the first swimmer since Mark Spitz to take both the 100 and the 200. Thorpe's feats in winning the 400-meter freestyle and anchoring his team to an epic victory in the 4-by-100-meter relay were superb and will earn him permanent and deserved celebrity in this sports-mad country, but it has now become painfully clear that the title of greatest swimmer in the world belongs not to Thorpe but to van den Hoogenband.

Considering that the wildly hometown-rooting, drumbeating press here had begun promiscuously throwing around words like "legendary" in discussing Thorpe, this development has been more than a little deflating. And when beloved butterfly champion O'Neill, who was also being prepared for simultaneous induction into Mount Olympus and Valhalla after winning the 200-meter freestyle, was defeated in her signature event, the 200-meter butterfly -- a race she hadn't lost in six years -- by unheralded American Misty Hyman, the sound of escaping hot air was positively deafening.

Thursday's papers tried to put a brave patriotic face on things. "Silver Susie," thundered the Daily Telegraph over a full-page color picture of the swimmer. "Farewell Susie," boomed the Australian. Only the Sydney Morning Herald dared to sound a slightly darker note with the troubling headline "Aim High, Shoot Low" -- and that accompanied a picture of archer Simon Fairweather, described as "Australia's 'only' gold medal" winner of the day. None of these headlines, of course, informed the reader who actually won the race: That detail wasn't part of the heart-tugging local angle. And when you turned to the stories themselves, the same playing-to-the-gallery approach prevailed: The lead paragraph of the Telegraph's news story on the event failed to mention the winner, opting instead for the "end to an illustrious career" angle.


TV coverage has been even more blatantly parochial. Channel Seven, the network carrying the Games here, apparently doesn't deem any event that doesn't feature an Australian finalist worthy of coverage. As disgruntled columnist Paul Kelly pointed out in Thursday's Australian, in a piece titled "By Jingo, Unlucky Seven for Viewers," the women's 200-meter individual medley final, won by great Ukrainian swimmer Yana Klochkova, didn't even make it onto the air. "There was no little battling Aussie finalist," Kelly noted. "So no race and no medal ceremony for TV ... This coverage, until last night, was offensively Aussie obsessed. It failed to give due tribute to great athletes from other countries."

Sound familiar, American TV watchers?

There's nothing wrong with the hometown tabloid approach, as long as it's leavened with some objectivity and breadth of coverage. The local print media here is taking a columnist's approach to the Olympics, and much of the writing is entertaining, opinionated and lively. But it'll be interesting to see how the media covers the Games when they move into the athletics phase, where Australian athletes won't be as dominant as they have been in swimming. If heart-tugging tales of Australian shooting medalists continue to bump minor events like the men's gymnastics team finals onto the back pages, then the small-town, rah-rah approach may start to seem less endearing and more ostrichlike.


I'm still trying to get a grip on this whole Aussie patriotism thing. Maybe a lot of Australians are too. The Olympics can be a distorting mirror, inspiring emotions that may be real but transient. Are Australians always this flag waving? Probably not, but it's also possible that the Olympics are changing that. The other day, riding the train back from Olympic Park, I asked a woman sitting behind me if Thorpe had won his big showdown with van den Hoogenband. "No, he lost," she said. "But that's all right. We don't need to be so parochial about everything. We don't need to win every event." She clearly wanted to distance herself from what she thought was a patriotic fervor that was slightly out of control.

The trickiest question about patriotism concerns its tone. Some nations are patriotic in a good-natured way; others can be overbearing and arrogant. Certainly the U.S. is seen in this latter light not just here but around the world -- whether rightly or not, I don't know. As I speculated in an earlier column, a lot of the resentment is just against our sheer numbers and tendency to win a lot. Yanks are perceived as having a sense of entitlement, and that can grow tiresome fast. But is it a legitimate beef? Some Americans definitely are insufferably smug and idiotically myopic. (My all-time favorite was a group of brainless, jewelry-bedecked women who began cackling and braying, "Take us up, Luigi" on a crowded funicular in Sicily. After exchanging the Look, my wife and I suddenly became honorary Estonians and remained silent for the duration of the ride. Showing amazing forbearance, the Italians did not hurl the women to their death on the rocks below.) But I don't think most of them are. When your country is suddenly swamped with all these rich people with big mouths, however, it's understandable that patience may wear thin.


As for Aussie patriotism, it seems to be innocent and good-natured, not aimed against anyone else. But I'm beginning to suspect that there may be a good-natured exception made when it comes to the U.S. (Only on the playing field, let it be clear: The individual Australians I've met have been friendly and welcoming, to a man and woman.)

Case in point: Wednesday's basketball game between the United States and Russia. From the moment the two squads were introduced, it was clear that this was a Russian crowd. The stands were packed with Russian fans. They cheered wildly every time Russia scored and sat stonily when the U.S. did.

What was going on? Had Vladimir Putin ordered the treasury depleted to send 10,000 fans to Sydney to cheer on the Moscow Bombers? Or had legions of Australians, suddenly and inexplicably embracing Karl Marx's economic precepts, become Russian citizens?


No -- this was a case of that longtime precept of Middle East diplomacy: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." You see, the Aussie women's basketball team, the Opals, are strong contenders for a gold medal, as are the WNBA-star-laden Americans. And therefore, any team playing the Americans becomes the good guys.

This is understandable -- to a point. But the Opals and the U.S. women aren't in the same group, and both of them are going to advance to the next round. It was hard to escape the conclusion that there was just a tiny bit of extra anti-U.S. topspin in the pro-Russian fervor. It was all in good fun: Lots of vocal Americans rubbed shoulders with go-Russia Aussies in the stands, and good sportsmanship and laughing prevailed. (There were even a few real, live Russians. A trainer with the American team engaged in a friendly flag-waving duel with a red-faced Russian fan, who may have discovered that you can buy a 30-centiliter shot of vodka for $6 at the bars, standing a few rows back.) I confess to being one of the loudest of the Americans -- it wouldn't be a game of hoops, even at the august Olympics, without a little trash talking from the stands. ("It's gonna be a long flight back to Siberia, baby" isn't offensive, is it?)

Of course, the pro-Russia surroundings made it all the more satisfying that the U.S. women won 88-77. This is the second game I've seen the Americans play -- they beat Cuba in the first one -- and the big matchup with Australia, if it comes, should be a barnburner. Unlike the men's team, the American women can be beaten -- and in 19-year-old center Lauren Jackson, the Aussies have a genuine superstar. The Americans have a team full of great individual players, but because of WNBA commitments they haven't had much practice time and they haven't completely jelled yet. Against both Cuba and Russia, they started slowly, trailing both teams midway through the first half. The Russians, who have an arsenal of deadeye three-point shooters and a huge, physical front line and who play a very solid game, controlled the boards and blasted away from outside the arc to take an 8-point lead, while the Americans played in fits and starts, following up brilliant one-on-one moves with out-of-control moves and turnovers.


In the second half, though, the Americans' superior athletic ability took over. Man, these women are good! I haven't paid much attention to the WNBA, but I may have to start. Sheryl Swoopes in particular is ridiculous: She just looks better by an exponential factor than any other woman on the floor, and she is. She has a completely fluid, explosive game and she can finish, too. There was one sequence in the second half when she faced off two or three times in a row against her defender and took her to school with her killer first left step every single time, even though everybody in the house knew it was coming. Once she and her teammates get on the same page, she ought to be able to break down any player in the world off the dribble and either score or dish off. Yolanda Griffith is solid down low, Lisa Leslie has a great all-around game and the U.S. guards just keep on coming: Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, who repeatedly bailed out the U.S. against Russia with outside bombs, Nikki McCray and Teresa Edwards are all fast, accurate and agile.

Anyway, they're a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Bring on the Opals -- the loser has to move to Omsk!

The big event Thursday night is the women's all-around gymnastics final. Will the tempestuous Svetlana Khorkina follow Alexei Nemov's gold-medal-winning performance with one of her own? Or will she crumple under the strain and catch the next flight to Hollywood, to collapse in the comforting arms of Mike Ovitz? I'll be there and I'll let you know.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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