I was filling up the car in a petrol station in Golbourne, listening to my father run through the basics of the premium umleaded versus regular unleaded debate, when it finally hit me that I was actually going to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. I’d known I had a ticket for a while (ever since I delivered my brother a 3-1 hdiing in a game of rock-paper-scissors) but the full impact didn’t actually collide with me until the day itself did. In nine hours time I would have a one-bucket seat part in Australian sporting history, and the very thought made me stand taller, give my chin an Olympian tilt, and pump petrol as well as I ever have in my life.
I read and re-read my ticket, firstly to ensure it hadn’t disappeared, and secondly to stare at the holygram, which rumour says has been produced uisng the saliva of a prominent Australian athlete. Why and how this athlete’s saliva is important in the process is not particularly clear, but the result has been a triumph for organisors trying to combat rorting, as well as the less serious problem of spectators licking their tickets.
I’m a long-term believer in the principle that spectators attending big events at night owe it to the millions watching at home to take as many awful, hopelessly out of range flash photos as possible to improve the footage from the blimp. That was my intention as I walked to my seat, but as would be the case all night, the organisors had a more spectacular vision. On our seats were oversized lunchboxes, containing stickers, a flashing wristbands, green and gold socks and a torch, an unlikely kit to come across in most walks of life but perfect for an opening ceremony. We spent the hour leading into the telecast learning how to turn on and off the wristband amd practising an emotive sway. By quarter to six we nearly had it, and by the time John Williamson strummed Waltzing Matilda just before the countdown, it was there. About 90,000 of us swayed ourselves to shameless, nationlistic tears.
The horses came next, and then the greatest underwater scene it has ever been my privilege to see on land. AFL Grand Final organisors take note. There were nothing that was large and inflatable and resembling an athlete. There were no kids running around spinning flags. It was just original and beautiful and important, especially if we as Australians are serious about developing a dance centred around corrugated iron.
From flowers to fish, the costumes wowed everyone although to be honest, we in aisle 334, row 23 were a little too far away to truly appreciate their brilliaance. Nevertheless, the people at the front roared when each new figure appeared, and the ripple effect meant that it didn’t take long before we were roaring too. And then when a good overhead formation occurred, visible only to blimps and those of us with a bit of altitude, we’d cheer and send the good news back down below. There was a terrific sense of sharing existing between the various levels of the crowd. At least I think there was. It’s also possible that everyone just blindly cheered everything all the time.
At the beginning of the athlete’s march, we tried to do the right thing and applaud each team, but after a time, our arms tired and we dropped back to just acknowledging outstanding outfits or war zones. On that rationale, Birkino Faso’s team received a double cheer from us. One for the sadness of the ongoing conflict there, and one for the magnificence of the manner in which their dress so resembled bananas in pyjamas.
The crowd started getting excited about the arrival of the Australian team in about the Us, which made me suspect that they didn’t know just how many sleeper countries there are starting with ‘Z’. I waited for Zaire before making my green and gold sock mitten move, only to find then that once they’re on I could not clap. Which was a shame for Zaire, because they’ve hardly been having a great time of it either.
By the time Andrew Gaze led the Australians into the arena, absolutely nobody could make a decent clap. We made do with sreaming hysterically and producing deep socky thuds with our hands. The Australians responded with waves and kisses and hopefully some of them had the greatest night of their lives. Cathy Frreeman was marching with the team, so most concluded that she would not be lighting the couldron.
As Dawn Fraser took the torch from Betty Cuthbert and Raelene Boyle, I wondered whether maybe the little red-headed girl with the pink dress might even pick up a leg on that last lap of the stadium. After all, she’d been in everything all night – up high, somersaulting, singing – but now wasn’t her time. It was the time for the greatest of Olympians. The flame went Fraser to Strickland to Gould to Flintoff-King to the world champion many of us had ruled out just fifteen minutes earlier. Now everybody stood and craned as Cathy conquered stairs with that grace that so few of us possess. Then, in what will be one of the enduring images of these Games she waded, and lit a cauldron beneath the surface. In the context of the themes of the night, the moment was perfect. Water and fire, aboriginality and for Sydney 2000, the ultimate arrival.
Meanwhile, three hundred metres away on the other side of the stadium, I stood and completed another half film of desperate long-range photos. Not because the pictures will work, they won’t. Still, when I see that incredible explosion of winks on video and television footage in years to come, I’ll be glad for that half roll of film. It will be nice knowing that one of those winks was me.