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G'Bye, Mates

After all the strange and wondrous things he has seen and heard, he's convinced these Games in a far-off land didn't happen.

October 02, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — The realization flew up my nose like a bogong moth, a wretched species the average American will never have the misfortune to see, which is precisely the point.

It was during a train ride through the countryside. I was returning from a U.S. women's soccer game in Canberra, trying to ponder the meaning of these Olympics.

Here they were, in a country 7,500 miles from home, on a different day than back home, filled with events apparently meaning little to anybody back home.

Here they were, swimming during our football season, performing gymnastics routines during a pennant race, the whole mess tape-delayed so long it required 3,000-meter steeplechase stamina just to care.

As I pondered, my head slowly leaning against a window, my cheek pressing against the glass, miles of scrubland passing below my eyes . . . they suddenly appeared.


Huge kangaroos, several of them, like deer on a trampoline, jumping wildly alongside the train, in perfect unison with each other, their heads reaching the window, their eyes meeting mine.

Wanting to confirm this sighting, I shouted something immensely intelligent and sophisticated to a buddy across the aisle.

"Kangaroos!" I said.

Moments later, they had disappeared in a grove of figs.

I didn't catch them on film. I had no physical evidence of something previously beyond my imagination. I scarcely believe it now.

That's when it hit me.

The theme of these Games will be, they never happened.

The startling triumphs. The unusual defeats. The strange sightings. All in this distant land.

Too far from home to comprehend, too unusual to grasp, too few television pictures to remind us, these will be forever known as the Olympics From Another Planet.

During the last three weeks, phone conversations with my children always went the same way.

They would ask what day and time it was. I would tell them. They would giggle.

We would speak on other things for a moment, then they would abruptly ask again what day and time it was. I would tell them. They would giggle.

One suspects the same thing will happen other places in coming years as people who were here try to explain the experience to those who weren't.

Questions will be asked. Giggles will erupt. Few will believe. By the time the circus hits Athens in 2004, nothing here will have happened.

The startlingly friendly people here didn't happen.

Nobody acts this nice. Commoners can't steal the Olympic show with a smile and a self-effacing laugh, can they?

That rail worker who, upon discovering I was lost, didn't really offer to ride with me until I found my way, did she?

When hearing my "accent," Sydneysiders didn't constantly come up and ask how their town was doing, and whether I needed help.

The cab driver who took a small wrong turn didn't really admit it, apologize, then offer to cut the fare, did he?

One late night while leaving Olympic Park, I walked past a pub filled with a large group of Aussies dancing and singing and leaping off tables.

"What is that all about?" I asked one.

"Um, the end of the workday?" he said.

Volunteers sang to fans through megaphones. Fans sang with other fans on trains. Sometimes they even sang sober.

Though already offering a drop-dead gorgeous city and well-run Games, the Sydneysiders also apparently considered it their duty to invite everyone inside and take their coats.

Sometimes we saw too much. They still treat race issues here as if, well, they've spent their entire life on an isolated island.

One woman, commenting on my "accent," said she loved to watch American movies.

"So I can learn and imitate how the black man talks," she said.

"In my country, that's not really considered polite," I said.

"What's not polite?" she said.

Now that never happens, does it?

The strange events of the Games also didn't happen.

The U.S. women's soccer team didn't lose. And certainly not to some country previously best known for its speed skaters.

Alexander Karelin of Russia, the most frightening man in Sydney other than Prime Minister John "No Apologies" Howard, didn't lose a super-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling match for the first time in 13 years.

And certainly not to a Wyoming farm boy who said he received proper training by pushing cows.

Tom Lasorda didn't win a gold medal, did he? Right. And when he did win a gold medal, he didn't realize that no, he wouldn't get a gold medal?

Not that the Dodgers cared either way.

Marion Jones didn't go three for five in her gold medal quest, did she? And that was a triumph, considering she ran while carrying a 300-pound shotputter on her back?

The U.S. men's basketball team--dreams no more--didn't require Lithuania to miss a shot at the buzzer before beating it, did they?

In the This-Stuff-Never-Happens-At-Fashion-Shows Dept., Lisa Leslie didn't actually have one of her hair extensions pulled off during a game.

And the woman who yanked it, Aussie star Lauren Jackson, didn't claim it was the highlight of her Olympic experience.

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