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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 02:12 GMT 03:12 UK
Australia keeps Olympic spirit alive
Freeman and the flame symbolised the Sydney spirit
Freeman and the flame symbolised the Sydney spirit
The BBC's Rob Bonnet discovers how the host nation is warming to the Olympics.

A funny thing happened to me on the way back to London, at Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia.

There I was, on the way home (!!) from the Sydney Olympics when I caught sight on television of a recording of the defining moment of the opening ceremony that I'd had missed and was therefore seeing for the first time.

That it was Cathy Freeman standing there with the torch was no surprise and the scene - with the cascading water and the ring of flame - was all that we'd been promised, both as spectacle and as symbolic moment of cultural and political significance.

But why - I wondered - was it all taking so long? Come on Cathy... you'll have to be a bit sharper than this on the track... what's your next move? Do something.....anything!

For a moment I thought that her talkback wasn't working...and that she was simply awaiting her next instruction... (did you see her personal earpiece?...cue Cathy...CUE CATHY!)

'Can-do' society

It was pretty obvious that this was the big build-up to the moment when the flame ascended that stairway to row ZZZ if not to Mount Olympus itself, but surely they were milking the drama just a little too long with poor Cathy left waiting like a relay runner with no-one to hand on to. Which, of course, was exactly what she was.

Anyway, since my grasp of the Malaysian commentary was feeble to say the least, it was left to my wife to explain... or to report the BBC's Barry Davies' comments in explanation.

There'd been a technical glitch and - somehow - the torch funicular was unable to leave the station until the problem was addressed.

Which it was. Eventually. At which point, Cathy - much relieved - rejoined her fellow torch bearers and the Olympic flame made its dramatic ascent.

I mention this as an exception to prove the rule in more ways than one. Firstly, my guess is that this difficulty was one of very few that are likely to affect the smooth running of the Games.

Freeman has proved a unifying force for Australia
Freeman has proved a unifying force for Australia

Australia is now wholeheartedly a 'can-do' society, newly released from an inferiority complex about its geographical isolation and a sense therefore of not quite being in the swim. Which it now most definitely is...and not just because of the 'Thorpedo!'

But the failure of a machine to deliver the final leg of the torch relay as efficiently as the thousands of Australians who had run, walked or wheeled themselves across their country was neatly and fittingly ironic.

The relay was a celebration of the simple abilities of human beings, not of technology. The event may have been conceived as a neat bit of PR for the Olympics but it was executed by a nation that quickly began to understand more about itself and its aspirations.

All this was done in front of massive crowds - it's estimated that as much as 90% of the country was drawn to at least one leg of the 100 day Relay - and so it's hardly surprising that this ceremony proved to be a binding force, uniting communities not only behind the Games but also behind the nation.

Schmaltzy sentiment

Sure, it was cleverly marketed via blanket television coverage and - yes - there were elements of political correctness that were by definition more calculated than spontaneous... but you can't fool 17 million people with schmaltzy sentiment alone.

I saw the end of the 95th leg in Kiama, a small seaside town about 70 miles south of Sydney on the New South Wales Coast. I guess there were about 20,000 there, young and old from all walks of life, eagerly awaiting the arrival in the dusk of surfing icon Tom Carrol.

There was a minor interruption some 400 yards from home...a young man ran from the crowd and tried unsuccessfully to hijack the Torch... but otherwise this was a joyful occasion with its own unity of purpose and contentment.

In the semi-darkness, thousands of candles cast their own soft light across the faces...children on their parents' shoulders, grandparents in their portable beach chairs, all straining for that first glimpse of the Torch.

And when it arrived and the cauldron was lit, there were smiles and tears almost in equal measure.

Warm flame

I spoke afterwards to several families and one mother suggested that the evening had been almost like a religious experience.

Afterwards there was a concert and a firework display - not so much a church service, more a good old knees up - but even then there was food for thought.

A young girl sang prettily a song with a simple chorus..."I am, you are, we are Australian"... and I felt suddenly moved at how this straightforward declaration of national identity and pride could be so gently and genuinely expressed.

Moments later, in almost equal measure, I felt a sadness for my own country, where sport can produce such a vicious and destructive nationalism... the "En-ger-land, En-ger-land, En-ger-land" chant of the football yob.

This, of course, is the first Olympics to follow the Salt Lake City scandal. It may have very little to do with the IOC membership itself, but the warm flame of the Olympic spirit still seems to be alive, thanks to the people of Australia.

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10 Sep 00 |  Fans Guide
Gearing up for the Games
27 Aug 00 |  Olympics2000
A shadow over Sydney
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