It was 7:00am on December 31, 1999, when I sleepily rolled over in my small-town Kansas home and clicked on the television, just in time to catch live coverage of the spectacular fireworks over Sydney Harbour as Australia welcomed in the year 2000. As they marked what some people were calling the dawn of a new millennium, the first moments of year 2000 were certainly remarkable. And as a native of Australia, I’m proud that Sydney excelled in heralding those moments. I stayed tuned to NBC all day to watch the celebrations around the world, but none matched the majesty and excitement of Sydney. Hence my expectations were high for the opening ceremony of the 27th Olympiad, especially since Ric Birch, who directed the Sydney’s New Year Celebration, was slated to direct the Opening Ceremony.
From what I saw (and I’d describe NBC’s coverage as sketchy, at best), the Opening Ceremony didn’t disappoint. The show was spectacular to the nth degree (okay, maybe it was a tad over the top, but I loved it all), with impressive choreography and lavish costumes. Much of the music was vocal 3,500 choir members from the Sing 2001 Choir, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney University Musical Society, the Millennium Choir of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, and the Sydney Children’s Choir. If it didn’t blast your ears like John Williams’ grossly overused theme, it made another kind of mark, thrilling and hauntingly beautiful.
The cultural part of the Opening Ceremony as differentiated from the speeches, the pledge, and the march of nations was divided into seven sections which told the story of Australia. Somewhat surprisingly, the narrative began with a rush of horses whose riders wore traditional Aussie stockman gear, Akubra hats and Driza-Bone coats. As pageantry, the horses and riders were impressive. Symbolically, however, this highly romanticized image of Australians is a tad screwy. The horses and their riders refer to Banjo Paterson’s much loved poem “The Man from Snowy River,” which was also made into an internationally acclaimed movie in 1982. The message conveyed is that Australians are the rugged bushmen of the poem, even though most Aussies rarely ride horses and leave Akubras and Driza-Bones to the tourists.
Equally problematic is the chronology suggested by this choice to begin the Ceremony, that the stockmen preceded the Aborigines, who are, after all, the oldest people on earth. Still, after the riders waved their flags and threw their hats into the crowd, the show settled into a somewhat more accurate history of Australia. The second section showed an Australia without people, save for our guide, 13-year-old Sydney school girl Nikki Webster, who dove into the ocean, a glittering world of fish and coral reefs. The third section comprised Aboriginal dancers from Arnhem land, led by one of their most famous members, Djakapurra, who performed a eucalyptus smoke cleansing ritual. Next came the Fire Section, recreating the look and feel of bushfires, a regular part of Australian life. The Tin Symphony then narrated the saga of European settlement. We caught a glimpse of Captain James Cook, but the greatest emphasis was on Ned Kelly, one of the great bushrangers. Kelly and his gang wore distinctive metal helmets while fighting off the law, and it was those helmets scaled up to enormous proportions that dominated this segment of the event. Then came a salute to tin of all kinds, accompanied by Irish fiddle music and girls tap-dancing in Blundstones, traditional Aussie work boots.
The most spectacular section came next, commemorating the arrival of immigrants from the five continents of the earth, each group wearing one color of the Olympic rings. The magnificent costumes were designed by major Australian designers, including Jenny Kee, Peter Morrissey, and Lisa Ho, and film and theatre costume designer Norma Moriceau. This was followed by the “Eternity” section. The word “eternity” has historical significance for Sydney-siders, who grew accustomed to seeing it all around the city for over 3 decades. In 1930, Arthur Stace (an otherwise ordinary citizen) was recovering from alcoholism. He was inspired by a preacher and the word “eternity” and wrote it in chalk all over the city for the next 35 years. The word was used as the culmination of the New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney; it was written in lights on the Harbour Bridge. And, of course, the idea of eternity is especially important to the whole country during this time of resolution and reconciliation with the Aborigines, people who have been on the earth for an eternity, certainly longer than any other culture anywhere else.
Finally, came the controversial marching band, the cause of much ill will between the U.S. and Australia. Apparently the Olympic organizers decided to use a 2,000 person marching band, and thought that the sunburnt country did not possess 2,000 marching brass players. An invitation was proffered to and accepted by United States and Japanese high school students to make up the number. When the Australian public found out about the invitation, they went ballistic, and the invitation was withdrawn. The fallout was tremendous and, apparently, lingering. One U.S. reporter described Australians as “loud, obnoxious beer-drinking convicts” (all descriptions being sources of great national pride). The result was not worth the ill will. The marching band section was particularly ordinary and hardly represents Australians, who generally think of people walking around with noisy metal instruments as yard-workers with lawnmowers.
The climax for the ceremony was, as always, lighting of the Olympic Cauldron. Track star Betty Cuthbert, now in a wheelchair, carried the torch into the arena, accompanied by fellow runner Raeline Boyle, a two-time breast cancer survivor. They handed the torch to swimmer Dawn Frasier, one of the most beloved athletes in all of Australia, and from there it was passed to runner Shirley Strickland, swimmer Shane Gould, athlete Debbie Flintoff-King, and Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman, who was given the honor of lighting the Cauldron. The image of Freeman standing in front of the spectacular waterfall holding the Olympic torch was impressive, and will long be remembered. Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” says, “Australians all, let us rejoice, for we are young and free.” Cathy Freeman seems to epitomize all that and more. She is young, yet part of a long cultural heritage. She is also symbolic of the advancement that Australia continues to make toward unity between white Australians and the Aborigines.
Whatever its faults, I loved the whole ceremony, every last minute of it. What I didn’t love was NBC’s coverage of it. NBC, which might stand for “Not Bloody Complete,” spent more time cutting away from the ceremony than on the events themselves. Now, I understand that the network has to make time for advertisers: someone has to pay for all those sentimental vignettes about athletes that have become the norm for network Olympic coverage. What I don’t understand is why NBC had to break into coverage of the cultural part the specifically Australian part of the Opening Ceremony to ask individual athletes from the U.S. team how they felt about being at the event. Is it so crucial to show good ol’ American faces on the tube? The cultural section of the Olympic games is not, after all, a Philip Glass opera that you can just pop in and out of at will. NBC’s coverage fractured the pageant’s narrative integrity and the network’s determination to thrust microphones in the faces of the U.S. team was costly to all the athletes. The Sydney organizing committee, planning an “athlete-friendly” games, had planned to give all 10,200 athletes a seat in the main stadium at the opening ceremony. But NBC protested so violently that the plans were scrapped. NBC claimed that seeing the athletes before the march of nations would spoil its effect. It’s more likely that seating the athletes in the stands would make them less accessible to reporters asking, “How do you feel?” Really, I’m sure they all felt proud to be representing their country.
I know I was bursting with pride at what my country had accomplished with the Opening ceremony. Spectacle, historical significance, and the promise of a great future: it was all there. The Ceremony was more than pageantry: it created a subtle blend of old and new Australia, ancient Aboriginal rituals coupled with the youthful potential of Nikki Webster. In the final moment, Nikki and Djakapurra walked away together, suggesting that the oldest culture on the earth and one of the youngest might finally unite.