As images of the athletes of the Olympic Games flood our television screens, I am reminded how much I relish watching the games for a fortnight every leap year and how hooked I become with the thrill of the chase. Cheering and urging our athletes on and riding with them, sharing in their glories, their brilliant talents, sometimes their heartbreak and broken dreams and bodies, and counting medals as we go.
I’m not sure if it’s just when good old Aussie pride kicks in, or that I’m a naturally competitive person. Or perhaps because I have no sporting talent or drive myself so I have to live vicariously through the sporting achievements of others instead. I was usually the one who was last over the line in the running races, once overhearing someone near the finish line what happened to ‘that poor girl’. Just a standard run for me sadly.
I may have inherited my lack of sporting prowess from my dear old dad. The one who was as blind as a bat without his thick glasses but was forced to play on the footy field with little ability to differentiate between his team mates and opponents and less idea where the ball was. He told the tale of when he was called unexpectedly from the bench, or more likely the spectator crowd, to bat in a high school cricket game. They must have been desperate as he wasn’t a cricketer.
‘Quick, Elly. We need someone to bat.’
Someone shoved a bat and cricket pads at him and someone else threw him a dangly cricket box. Think jockstrap with a protective cup. Looking at it perplexed, he asked what he should do with it.
Put it on, they said.
So he did. On his head, with the little dangly bits tied up neatly under his chin. He walked out on the field to rousing applause from the crowd. And got a duck.
Then there was his school athletics carnival when his team needed just a few points to have a chance at winning the carnival, so the point awarded for entering an event was valuable. Urged on by team mates, he entered the hurdles, despite having never jumped a hurdle in his life. He lined up ready and as the others took off and jumped over the first hurdle, he thumped straight into his and knocked it over. He regrouped quickly, kept going and tackled the next. Same thing. Straight over. But he just kept going. Thump. Thump. Thump. At the end of the race, he looked back and there in his wake were the entire eight hurdles all lying flat in his lane. I can’t remember whether his team ended up winning the carnival that year, but he got the point for participating.
I must have inherited my team spirit from Dad too because, despite lack of talent, I gave a lot of sports a go – from athletics and swimming carnivals, to netball, basketball, volleyball and tennis. I even tried my hand at hurdles for a while, though I managed to go over the top of them.
Many of my Olympic memories are tied up in childhood memories as I watched in awe and collated others’ achievements in scrapbooks – the greatness of swimmers like Shane Gould and Mark Spitz from 1972 in Munich and their clutches of gold, Nadia Comenici as a kid scoring 10s willy nilly, the devastation of Raelene Boyle being cruelly and wrongly disqualified in the 200 metres in 1976, and so it goes on.
In the early 80s I shared uni housing with some of our sporting champs as the newly founded Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra used university residential colleges as overflow accommodation for their sporting recruits. We had the swimmers and the gymnasts living in our college, so we got to see a bit how they lived and trained – and partied, all of which they did seriously. It made watching the Olympics even more personal as we knew so many of the names try to teach him to do a back-sault wasn’t wise.
In 1988, thanks to a sick baby and an absent husband, I watched almost the entire Seoul games. Long couch days filled with the glories of Duncan Armstrong swimming gold for Australia, and Flo Jo and (later shamed) Ben Johnson running glam athletics for the US. But it was the nail-biting battle between the rather gorgeous West German Jergen Hingsen and US Daley Thompson for the title of decathlon champion, the pinnacle of Olympic achievement, that had me and the world spellbound, ending for Jergen in a false-start disqualification. Oh those shattered dreams, all those years of training down the drain, over in just seconds. I still remember his disbelieving stumble around the track searching helplessly for another chance or a different version of history. I wonder how the athletes ever get over such moments of devastation, years of heartache and sweat down the toilet in seconds?
So many spectacular moments, victories, stories, almost-moments and disappointments, inextricably wound up in my own memory bank.
But above all the games, Sydney 2000 is the standout – when Sydney put on a massive party and invited the world, and we got to take part. As spectators of course.
We’d lucked out with the Opening Ceremony lottery so we booked tickets for an all-day event that featured many sports, and was pretty cheap for a cash-strapped family: the modern Pentathlon. Our Australian competitor didn’t fare too well but we had a blast traipsing around Homebush Bay with the competitors as they ran, swam, ran, fenced and rode through their event, and cheered madly along the way.
But it’s not the sporting triumphs I remember most from those games (though the image of Cathy Freeman in her hooded cat suit is surely etched in all Australians’ memories), but the spirit that took over Sydney for a couple of weeks.
Despite the throngs of people, no one pushed, no one got cranky, everyone smiled and talked to each, even on trains, bus drivers on the free buses waited for you, and we all had a marvellous time. Not just at Olympic sites, but throughout the city as well. It was as if the whole place was on happy gas. No one got robbed at knifepoint and people weren’t constantly worrying about terrorism and random acts of violence. For a fortnight we felt like we were part of one bit happy world and we could celebrate our humanity and our worldwide friendships as well as our sporting champions.
Sadly that happiness seems more elusive now as we struggle to combat a constant undercurrent of hatred and mistrust of those from other cultures and other nations. For two weeks, though, we can pretend our world really is harmonious and we are just one big happy, multi-coloured family, all making history and memories together.