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Torch Song
Gary Smith
September 25, 2000
Cynicism about the Games ran high in Sydney until the Olympic flame approached the city. Then the citizenry fell hopelessly in love
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September 25, 2000

Torch Song

Cynicism about the Games ran high in Sydney until the Olympic flame approached the city. Then the citizenry fell hopelessly in love

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It was a tidal wave now, and nobody could get in its way. Not the brown fellows, the Aborigines who months ago threatened the white guys with mayhem. Not a couple of hundred protesters who rattled up from Melbourne, where they'd freaked out capitalists earlier in the week at the World Economic Forum—but fizzled out here after New South Wales premier Bob Carr threatened the "bully-boy fascists" with jail and the wrath of six million people. What happened when the locals learned that buses carrying the Olympic crowds were getting lost, and 170 drivers had walked off the job in disgust? Six hundred volunteers jumped into the breach. News of more drug scandals? It was given page 18 in the paper and a shrug.

By 7 p.m. last Friday, when 110,000 people at Stadium Australia lifted their arms and sang Waiting Matilda, not a skeptic was left in the whole damn city—they were going to be the most awesome opening ceremonies ever, whether they really were or not...but, golly, they were. Being in the largest Olympic stadium ever built felt like flying around inside a giant cranium crowded with Aussie hallucinations and dreams. This Ric Birch guy, the ceremony's creator, is a stud.

Finally, near midnight, it came to this: At the north end of the coliseum, at the heart of a 1,900-acre playground where pools of waste oil, pesticides and dioxins once stewed, where the 20,000 animals slaughtered daily in the world's second largest abattoir once shrieked, where so many unpleasant things the white guys did were buried under 13 gleaming sports venues, stood a woman. She was the granddaughter of an Aboriginal woman taken by authorities as a child and given to a white family, like tens of thousands of "stolen generation" Aborigines.

She waited as the torch passed through the last of 11,200 Australian hands, a couple of million tons of national baggage about to go up in smoke. See, if all that cynicism could be incinerated by the flame, then why couldn't the white guys feed Aussie racism and sexism to it too? Why not have the last six torch bearers be sheilas—whoops, women—five of them former Olympians and the last of them a brown woman named Freeman?

Cathy Freeman, the 400-meter world champion, took the torch, climbed a set of stairs and stepped into a pool beside a waterfall cascading from the top of the stadium's second tier. She bent and lit a circle of flame, which turned out to be the inner rim of a nine-ton platter of steel, the Olympic cauldron, which rose above her like a spaceship. Uh-oh—it got stuck for 3� minutes, a faulty switch, but who in this Sydney complained or disdained? It shuddered back to life and finished the climb to the 14-story stadium's top. Ahhh, what a lovely sound, the scream that comes from the throat of a burning rat in a pudding.

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