Letter from Sydney

Hey, there's a theme park in my backyard! Oi! Oi! Oi!

THERE'S THE OLD Australian joke about the American who hopped off a plane at Sydney Airport, jumped into a cab, and asked to be driven to the other side of the island. But things have changed. After the announcement of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and especially in the last two weeks, every little detail about the country has been beamed direct and live, 24 hours a day, with nonstop coverage into the living rooms of, well, anyone who has a living room.

American presidents no longer get Australia confused with that little country to the (ahem) right of Germany, and Australians in the US rarely get told how good their English is anymore. But, believe it or not, there is a downside to having your underwear on display for the world to see.

To start with the bleedin' obvious, the crowds and traffic congestion in Sydney have just become phenomenal. Bad enough are the huge numbers of people that hang off the sides of buses, form the mile-long lines to the unattended cab-ranks, and ensure that fast food isn't. What's worse, many of these tourists try to do everything (including walking and driving) on the right side, which is the wrong side, because the left side is the right side and not the right, which is the wrong side. Right?

All of this is mildly off-putting, but has little to do with my real pathological gripe against the world's premier sporting event. (I lived in New York for three years, so a few blow-ins don't faze me an iota). While my suspicion can be traced back to the rumors surrounding the dispossession of low-income earners in preparation for the Atlanta and Barcelona Games, my seething hatred of all things five-ringed began about a year ago when they knocked my house down.

I wasn't actually home at the time; in fact, I'd moved out a couple of weeks prior to that lead ball smashing through my bathroom window, but that's hardly the point. The landlord replaced my comfortable but run-down single-story California bungalow abode with as many Lego block-style shoeboxes as he could fit—just in time to rent them out for the Olympics. While I can whine about my own pathetic situation, I did manage to find another place close by. There have been, however, an extra 6,000 people made homeless over the last year in Sydney due to such Olympic visionaries and skyrocketing rents.

I MUST AGREE WITH Seattle Weekly tech writer Angela Gunn, who recently wrote that "Seattle ought to be proud of running that multinational gravy train out of town," and just add that Sydney would be a much saner place if we'd done just that and hadn't been so keen to dip our kangaroo steaks in it. Something else that Gunn touched on was the contamination of the Olympic site.

To set this up properly we should go back a few years, just prior to Sydney's bid. It is my belief that one very drunkard night, after a day of champagne breakfasts, liquid lunches, and whatever else ended up in some insalubrious gentlemen's club, one local Olympic Committee member bet another that they could talk the world into holding the Games at Australia's most toxic sludge dump. And thus, the former Union Carbide landfill site.

This seething, toxin-seeping industrial waste dump was chosen for a meeting of the world's healthiest people. If I haven't quite driven home the point yet, dioxins—the stuff that makes Agent Orange tick—weren't just spread around, lacing the surface like chook poo (that's chicken shit to you Yanks), they comprised the miles of reclaimed land area that several squillion people are now glued to. And I don't mean to be a downer or anything, but Homebush Bay is the only place in Australia that has a total fishing ban (and yes, Blinky the three-eyed fish is on the menu tonight in the athlete's village).

As Greenpeace will testify, the cleanup job wasn't a total failure, but it still leaves much to be desired. The landscapers weren't too confident, either. They were so worried about dioxins seeping up peoples' butts that they fashioned the surrounding areas into triangular-shaped hills—the logic being that, yes, you can take a bit of a stroll, but picnicking, etc., is out of the question (nowhere to rest your beer cans).

Another reason you Seattleites should be relieved at having shafted the Olympics is that governments tend to get all despotic and make just about everything illegal in public places (although perhaps it's already too late for you guys, what in the post-WTO world and all). The irony of ironies is the ban on playing sport in many areas. In one of many "live" sites around Sydney, you can sit down with your beer can and make oi!, oi!, oi! noises in front of giant TV screens, but get a ball out and the cops'll jump you, sharp-shooters will take aim, and you'll have "terrorist" stamped all over your passport (and possibly your forehead, especially if your face isn't already covered with those tacky rub-on flag tattoos). Just for the record, the fine for such a crime is up to A$2,200 (currently about two cents US).

IN THE LAST TWO weeks we Australians, normally a cynical bunch, have discovered patriotism. If you asked people to define "national unity" before September 15, most would have said an insurance company. Unlike you Americans, the flag has meant little to many of us. (In a debate over the future of our flag, one respected radio personality has even suggested that Australia should be the first country to go flagless, or adopt the "nudie flag" as he calls it.)

This newly discovered patriotic fervor means that normally conservative dressers now walk the streets wrapped like burritos in Australian flags (and little else, I suspect); green and yellow hair spray no longer suggests antisocial behavior; and to have a garment covered in saccharine renditions of koalas (or Qantas bears, as they're known in the US) isn't just kitsch—it demonstrates a swelling of national pride. (And I thought it was just the proliferation of McDonald's.)

I might just end with a few things to ponder while some sadistic bugger drafts Seattle's 2016 bid. Despite a massive surge in Sydney's population over the course of the Olympics, it has been reported that visits to brothels have actually fallen (leading to all of those bigger questions about sport, sex, and the meaning of life, none of which I'm even going to touch). With over 20,000 journalists in Sydney, they now outnumber athletes almost two to one. And, finally, it seems like every second person in Sydney is an Olympic volunteer. If you want to get some poor old retiree with too much time on their hands to clean your toilets, just tell 'em that you're holding the Olympics; it's amazing what you can talk people into in the name of patriotic duty.

 
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