You should have been there. Truth is, you could have been there. Visitors to Oz are told to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and for one very good reason. Behind the curtain at the Oz Olympics you see athletes revealed for who they really are: you.
Behind a grandstand at the Aquatic Centre is the warmup pool you don't see on TV. Wreathed by potted palms and patio chairs, redolent of chlorine, surrounded on all sides by shivering swimmers, it resembles in nearly every detail the pool beneath the Holidome of the Holiday Inn in South Bend. Here, behind the curtain, 16-year-old Megan Quann looks less likely to win Olympic gold than to wait—per her mother's instructions—an agonizing half hour after eating before playing Marco Polo in the deep end.
Meanwhile, behind an Olympic Park pavilion, four female Danish team handball players nervously sneak cigarettes. Except for their uniforms, they could be workers gone AWOL from their cubicles outside any office building in the world. Behind the high-security cordon of the athletes' village, one of the shortest male Olympic basketball players celebrates his extraordinary ordinariness. "I look like a rec-league player," says David Daniels, the 5'10", Jell-O-calved backup point guard for Canada. "I look like someone you play with on Thursday nights."
No wonder nobody is watching NBC. Instead of relentlessly hyping how extraordinary these Olympians are, the network should strive to show them for who, at heart, they really are: us.
As for those who look nothing like we do, even they know (or ought to know) that their appeal lies in our common humanity, that they are surrogates for the human race. "A hundred and ten thousand people in the stands," Marion Jones said last Saturday night, five feet from the finish line of the 100-meter final she'd just won, "and I bet all of 'em wish they could be down here."
Some of us were, in a manner of speaking. Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea had never swum before January, yet found himself in an Olympic 100-meter freestyle heat before 17,500 fans in the Aquatic Centre. When the two other men in the heat false-started, the 22-year-old Moussambani was left to swim, all alone in a middle lane, two epic lengths of the 50-meter pool. That's the trouble with Olympic swimming: It takes place in an Olympic-sized pool. And Moussambani had only trained—one hour a day, three days a week for the past nine months—in a 20-meter hotel pool near his hometown of Malabo.
Moussambani swam like so many of us do: His head was above water at all times, yet he turned it from side to side in a heartbreaking pantomime of Olympic champions. When it appeared that on his enervating return lap, Moussambani might drown, a radio announcer in the press tribune began to remove his shirt in anticipation of making a rescue. But Moussambani finally dog-paddled home—to the loudest cheers the Games had yet heard—in 1:52.72, just 1:04.88 off the world record. "I want to send hugs and kisses to the crowd," said Eric the Eel, as the Aussie papers have taken to calling him, "because it was their cheering that kept me going."
Inevitably, the London Mirror a few days later paid Moussambani to race one of its correspondents in a Sydney municipal pool. The sportswriter lost, but he can be forgiven his delusional aspirations, for these Olympics have made every one of us feel Olympian.
Deep down, we humans are all the same. Come to think of it, on the surface the same holds true: Ivan Ivanov (Bulgarian weightlifter) was last week disqualified for using drugs, whereas Ivan Ivanov (Kyrgyz swimmer) was disqualified for false-starting. And don't get us started on Ivan Ivankov (Belarussian gymnast), who finished fourth in the men's all-around despite having appeared, on the cover of this magazine, painted head to toe in gold.
Which is just about the state in which we now find Australia, a nation of 18.7 million people that as of Monday had—absurdly—won 43 medals, 12 of them gold. ( Australia won five medals total in 1976.) Oz has, moreover, charmed the pants off its visitors. Literally so: Sydney's legal brothels reported two-hour waits. Players on the Italian soccer team celebrated one victory by de-pantsing themselves and flinging their shorts into the crowd. Speedo set Eric the Eel up with a slick new bodysuit. (The goggles he wore were, at last report, fetching $1,775 on eBay.)