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We Don't Want to Roo-in Opening, but . . .

September 15, 2000|Randy Harvey

SYDNEY, Australia — It was minutes before the final dress rehearsal began Wednesday night for the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics, and chills already were running up and down my spine. John Williamson, a popular Australian folk singer, had been asked to warm up the crowd on a brisk end-of-winter evening with a rendition of "Waltzing Matilda." He did. It was soulful. It was haunting.

"Oh, there once was a swagman camped in a billabong,

"Under the shade of a coolabah tree;

"And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,

"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

When he reached the chorus, he asked the 75,000 or more spectators, who were getting a free peek at the ceremony that was to take place for real early this morning L.A. time and that you can see on television tonight, to join him. They did, slowly, a little timidly, at first and then loud and proud.

"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

"Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag--

"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

Williamson did the second verse alone.

"Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water hole,

"Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee;

And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker-bag,

"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

I loved it--every note, every lyric. I had only one question.

What on God's sunburned earth does it mean?

I'm pretty sure a Matilda is like a knapsack. But why would you waltz with it? I could see maybe throwing it down on the hard ground and break-dancing. But waltzing?

Billy boiling? Jumbuck? Tucker-bag? This is no English I know.

Four hours later, when the practice ceremony ended, I had one other question.

Where were the kangaroos?


The only other Olympics held in Australia were in Melbourne in 1956, when there was no worldwide television of the Games. The country/continent then went into hiding for the next 44 years, giving no one in the rest of the world any reason to pay attention to it except for when Australians exported movies, movie stars and Chardonnay. Now, the Olympics are back, in Sydney this time, and 4 billion people will have the opportunity to watch.

The opening ceremony is the first time in history that Australians have had a chance to let us know what they want known about them. At least, that's what some of them are saying.

I thought they were telling us about themselves with those Australia Tourism Commission commercials in the States that had Paul ("Crocodile Dundee") Hogan saying "G'day" as he put another shrimp on the barbie. But, apparently, that was a joke on us, because, although many Australians do have barbies and do cook shrimp (prawns, actually) on them, we must be pretty stupid if we don't think that life here is much more complex than that.

Because all we were looking for was a vacation spot, and because Australians like to think of Americans as stupid, the commercial worked on every level.

Of course, Australians, like everyone else, have national issues, and because I assumed some of them would emerge at the opening ceremony, I called John MacAloon, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Chicago. I used to think of Olympic opening ceremonies as college football halftime shows on steroids, but MacAloon set me straight in Seoul in 1988, and, since then, I have interviewed him about every one I've covered.

MacAloon confirmed my thoughts about Sydney's, pointing out that the message began during the closing ceremony in Atlanta in 1996 when the producer, Ric Birch, had the moxie to include a "Picnic at Hanging Rock" theme.

That was the 1969 Australian novel, turned into a 1975 Peter Weir movie, about a group of girls from a posh boarding school who went on a Valentine's Day field trip in 1900 into the Outback and never returned. According to The Times review, the theory was that the girls fell under a supernatural or sexual hysteria, and, MacAloon said, it tapped into Caucasian Australians' subliminal fears about their wives and daughters and Aborigines. Heavy stuff.

But at least Birch lightened the mood in Atlanta by including kangaroos on bicycles, which gave us what we wanted to see in America and provided a cheap laugh for urban and suburban Australians, meaning the majority of them, who have never seen a kangaroo outside of a zoo.

Well, I must warn you, there are no kangaroos in the ceremony here.

There are no cuddly koalas.

There is not even a Kookaburra in a coolabah tree.


I'm not sure how much American audiences are going to appreciate the ceremony. I did, after MacAloon explained it to me. It seems as if the message is as much for Australian audiences as it is for everyone else, and I'm not sure how much they're going to appreciate it, either.

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