Patrick Reusse, the great sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, once took a phone call from Vikings owner Mike Lynn, who complained that Reusse's coverage of the team was relentlessly unflattering. Reusse responded with the finest definition of sportswriting ever uttered: "Mike, it's very simple. When you lose, we make fun of you. But when you win, we make fun of the other guys."
The important thing in covering sports is to make fun of somebody, to turn every game into Mystery Science Theater 3000. American sports take themselves so seriously (think of the Super Bowl or of Mike Lynn) that we sometimes forget how fundamentally absurd they are. What distinguished the Sydney Olympics from every other sports spectacle in memory: The Games—those who played them, covered them, volunteered to work at them—retained, at every turn, a self-deprecating sense of humor. It is a contagion in Australia. As a commercial for Seven, the network that televised the Olympics in Oz, said of the home country's tennis doubles powerhouse of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde: "Individually they're totally useless, really. But put them together, you've got synergy. And that's what Australia is."
Every night from 11 to one, Seven aired a live show called The Dream devoted to making sport of the day's sports. Hosted by two bone-dry Australian radio personalities, The Dream was the place to see super-slow-motion replays of manifold groin-related atrocities—judoists kicked flush in the nuts, water polo players de-Speedoed on underwater camera, vaulters scrotally impaled on their poles. Olympians lined up to be guests, and they too made fun of themselves. It's called, in Oz as in England, "taking the piss."
Last Saturday night, host HG Nelson took the piss out of Jon Drummond while watching video of Drummond and the other sprinters on the U.S. 4x100 relay team celebrate their victory. As the quartet's endless, ludicrous series of glares, struts and muscle poses played out on a monitor, Nelson simply glanced at his watch and said, "It goes on a bit, doesn't it?" Drummond, seated next to him, could only laugh and nod.
Smart move, because humorless nitwits—self-important American athletes, for the most part—were booed or whistled down throughout the Olympics, as when Vince Carter waggled a Namath-like index finger in the air after the Dream Team's shocking upset of... Lithuania. In Oz, cutting such people down to size is a national pastime. It's called "lopping poppies."
Political correctness is still only a rumor Down Under. Pub crawlers heard Kiwi jokes involving farmers, sheep and the most famous of New Zealand oxymorons: virgin wool. When naturalized Aussie pole vaulter Tatiana Grigorieva described the women's field in her event as "a bunch of hot chicks," a nation reacted not with shock but with something more appropriate: universal agreement.
Among the 47,000 Olympic volunteers were at least two transvestites, dressing down in the official volunteer uniform of khakis and seemingly paint-splattered polo shirt. One vol who died on the job was buried in the hideous getup, made of a mysterious wonder substance not found in nature. Train passengers joked that they tried to cremate him, but the shirt wouldn't burn. Do you not love this country?
The Sydney Games, I'm told, had insipid official mascots: Oily, Syd and Millie. But during my three weeks in Sydney, I never saw them. Instead, Australians appointed as their international ambassador an overstuffed animal called Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat. Fatso first appeared as a cartoon character on The Dream, and the nation was instantly enamored of him. Aussie swimmers Michael Klim and Susie O'Neill each held the marsupial on the medals stand, which was fitting, for Fatso (as all Dream viewers knew and as one newspaper explained) "s——gold."
If you ask me, so does Sydney. It's not the most delicate of compliments, but every Australian will understand.