Away from the Heart of the Matter: the Little Olympics

Sydney 2000 was the Bumper Summer Olympics. It welcomed more than 11,000 athletes, several thousand officials and coaches, and as the 16 days whizzed by estimates of the number of mediafolk in town reached 21,000, although official estimates had been initially put at around 15,000. Athens 2004 plans to cater for 18,000 media. The Main Press Centre at the Olympic Park was vast, and the International Broadcast Centre was dominated by US broadcaster NBC, who’d paid 705 million US dollars for the rights, and mobilized a workforce of more than 2,000. More athletes, more sports, more professionals. Bigger, bigger, bigger.

The International Olympic Committee claims that the vast majority of the world’s population able to access a television will have watched the action, the opening ceremony pulling in several billion – though such claims are beyond corroboration, and more reputable estimates by independent researchers have put the figure at rather less than half the one trumpeted by the IOC. But it is beyond dispute that the summer Olympic Games does claim one of the biggest television audiences of all time. Australians, and Sydneysiders especially, responded to the Games with passion and a determination to shout and support their own competing hopefuls, and then in the 24 hour pubs of Pyrmont and the like to party through till dawn. Gold was won by the scantily clad blonde women beach volley-ballers at Bondi Beach, by the muscular concrete-pillar necked water polo girls in the Aquatic Centre, as well as by the beach bums of the swimming squads and the fated and fêted bridge to Aboriginal/Australian reconciliation, Cathy Freeman.

When the big hopes were competing, the venues were a sell out and the great live sites of Sydney – Circular Quay, Martin Place in the Central Business District, Tumbalong Park at Darling Harbour, Pyrmont Park, The Domain atop the Royal Botanical Gardens, Belmore Park at Central Station – were throbbing with nationalist enthusiasm. The home crowds were raucously supportive of their Australian hopes, and always ready with a jeer and a boo for the athletes from the UK and the US. If there was no serious Australian competitor in an event, the crowd cheered any compatriot it could locate. At the boxing, this gave a moment of celebrity to a number of Australian referees.

It was nevertheless enthralling seeing a nation of 20 million people chasing the USA and China in the medal table, and celebrating this by waving or being draped in a national flag dominated by the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The victorious side of the Olympics for the host nation quickly became a metaphor for both the reconciliation embodied in the dignified presence of Cathy Freeman, and the success of the new Australia of multi-cultural mix. The silver medal in the first-ever Olympic women’s pole vault was won by a blonde beauty from Adelaide, with the most New-Australian of names, Tatiana Grigorieva – complete too with a recent nose job by the look of it, maybe since she relocated herself from Russia in 1996. So many of the Australian women were blonde, leggy and en route to if not already packaged up in modelling contracts. Tatania had already got the glam shots of her, in far less than her pole-vaulting outfit, ready for the world press.

The organisers of the Games, the much maligned SOCOG (Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games) could claim an Olympic record in ticket sales, 80 odd per cent and above the sales figures for Atlanta 1996. But there weren’t many sell outs for the women’s soccer semis, or the softball preliminaries, or the Graeco-Roman wrestling, or the handball. I’d decided to take a look at some of the less glitzy sports, across Olympic Park, city centre venues and the western suburbs. Ones too that normal people like most of my taxi drivers might be able to afford – not the 455 dollars a go for the Aquatic Centre and a partial view only of the pool; or the 1,450 dollars for the Opening Ceremony. Or even the 105 dollars for the later rounds of the beach beauties over at Bondi. I thought I’d go where on a mere professorial salary I might have been able to afford to take my family when they were younger, had some interest in sports, and might have enthused if the Olympics were in town.

Western suburbs was a bit of a misnomer. Getting to Olympic softball was deserving
of a special Olympic award. It was based in the Olympic Softball Centre at Blacktown. Well, that’s what the programme said, but it wasn’t really in Blacktown at all. There, a good ride out of town, it already felt like we were half way to the Blue Mountains. It was a lower and hotter sun than in Sydney, and it felt like a good option to ride on to Mount Victoria, and hole up in the Victoria and Albert Guest House with a nice bottle of wine, a log fire, and close-ups of the top action. I’d been there for a few nights the previous month, when the area’s Yulefest was in full flow. Yulefest was a mid-winter innovation of the local tourist trade. To compete with cheap jet travel to Bali or Singapore or some Pacific Island idyll, the entrepreneurs of the Blue Mountains region had come up with a winner. It’s mid-winter in Australia in August, they said, so let’s have a traditional knees-up at the weekend, but get in some symbols of excess and tradition. So in the V & A I’d paid over the mark for a three-course Christmas dinner, sat by a decorated and illuminated Christmas tree, and pulled – if not felt – crackers with my companion. Half way through the meal Santa Claus came tramping into the dining room and gave out boiled sweets. This was a cue for the local minstrel boy to switch from Neil Diamond or John Denver numbers to Jingle Bells. It was cold – for Australia – outside, the log fires were cosy and the red wine was warming. Bizarre and cute – and maybe better than what might await at the Softball Centre.

But it would have been cowardly to head out for Mount Victoria, even if its converted community hall the Mount Vic Flicks must be the sweetest little movie house in the world. So the Olympic epic continued. Another train took the increasingly blue-collar crowd to Doonside, where fleets of buses carted us in to Rooty Hill. Hey this is where the action starts for the local lads, I thought. Some frothing-at-the-mouth hedonist back in Newcastle (New South Wales) had spluttered in the Great Northern pub that “you take home the fat ones on the Friday night. They’re the rooters”. That was the first time that I’d realised that in Australian vernacular to root means to fuck. Any connection with how Rooty Hill got its name? Rooty Hill was flat, making the south-east of England look mountainous. This seemed another Australian trait. Back in Newcastle I’d visited a house in Cooper’s Hill, on the flattest bit of central Newcastle. So I was ready enough for this – the Olympic Softball Centre was on a flat dustbowl called Rooty Hill, a suburb of Doonside a train ride out of Blacktown. From Central Sydney this had all taken close to two hours. The compensation was that I’d been able to feel nostalgic for the Blue Mountains, I’d mingled with some of the local population rather than the worldwide media, and I was now able to watch some of the world’s top women athletes in one of the newest sports on the Olympic agenda.

Softball’s essentially a copy of baseball. The women dress pretty much the same as men in baseball. They use a stick that looks pretty much like a baseball bat, though it’s thinner. And the critical player in the squads is without question The Pitcher (some squads have loads of these). The basic principle of the game is that The Pitcher throws the ball (underarm, men in baseball pitch overarm) very hard – high or low, it varies – in a fashion designed to prevent The Batter from hitting it at all. This means that The Batter can’t then score a run by hitting the ball – white, and bigger than a baseball, but not at all soft-looking to me – high and beyond the perimeter of the stadium, and running around all the four bases. If you hit it high but not far enough you get caught. Nobody drops a catch in softball, as the players have on one hand a giant mitt, that looks like the kind of soft toy Australian gold medallists had become fond of cuddling on the medal rostrum. If you don’t hit the ball or if you hit it just a short distance then you can run like mad to one of the four bases. For ages in this game, if the teams are evenly matched, there’s no score. Then The Pitcher might get tired or The Batter might get lucky, and the softball is hit longer and harder and some runs might be scored. You also get a run if you can get around all those four bases whilst someone else is having a go with the bat. Some teams play cunningly, getting different players on the bases, knowing that it’s unlikely that many players will hit the ball out of the playing area. The Canadian team did this very cleverly against Japan. Trailing 3-0 to some impressive Japanese swinging and thwacking, they’d got a couple of players on the bases, and a mighty swing from Wood connected and thrashed the ball into the crowd. All three players then trotted around the four bases and suddenly the match was all-square, or tied up, as the commentators liked to say. At first, looking at the woman who crouches behind The Batter to catch the ball that nobody’s likely to hit, who’s adorned in a suit of armour and mask that would delight the local S-M community, I’d thought that tied-up was a sub-text for more exciting Games. But it turned out to mean level in score, at which point the Japanese brought on The Really Big Pitcher. This was a rather older-looking woman, of more than ample proportions, who had something special in her wrist action. She went on to mesmerise the Canadian players and eventually, in complex tie-break rules, the Japanese got home 4-3.

There are interesting moments of tension in Softball. Like when the ball’s mis-hit and seems to be coming at your head in your spectator seat, at a million miles an hour. Then it hits the safety net. And The Batters swing the stick with serious menace, and you think that they can’t go on missing it for so much of the time. But when there’s a bit of a mismatch it can look embarrassing. That’s true in any competitive sport. But how can you have this in team sports at the Olympics? The Cuban women lost 7-0 and began to look as if they feared the wrath of Castro long before the end of their encounter with the lean and wiry looking Chinese. The Cubans looked like they’d been left out of the track and field squads throughout their lives, maybe not quite got the mobility skills for volleyball, but in line with Cuba’s philosophy of sport for all – “massivity”, they’ve often translated it in Cuba – they had to come to the Olympics and do something. Not to beat about the bush, the Cuban team was a bunch of fatties. Softball might have looked the soft option for some of these, but as China accelerated its desperate and determined bid to host the 2008 Olympics, nothing was going to halt the momentum of its attack on the medal table.

The Olympics is a bloated beast, but one grain of optimism as some of us try and salvage some positive values from the debacle of consumer excess, organisational scandal and jingoistic nationalism, is that the proportion of women competing at the Games has risen dramatically. The old Soviet Union and other East European states always knew how to win lots of medals. Pick obscure sports, spot people with some physical aptitude, train them up on drugs and dedicate lots of resources to esoteric activities. Do this with your women athletes too and most of the West’s hopeful beauties won’t stand a chance. China’s followed the formula well. So, in part, has Australia, where it was clear that the general profile of women’s sports, and the country’s position in the medal table, would rise if more women’s sports got on the programme. So the Australian Olympic Committee supported, prepared and sent loads of impressively athletic and fearsomely competitive women to the Games. And it makes an interesting counterpoint in Australia to the nation’s top four team sports – rugby union, rugby league, cricket and Australian rules football. All male and not on the Olympic programme. Not to mention the major Australian sport for women and girls, netball.

But there weren’t very many people at Rooty Hill rooting for the teams of China, Cuba, Japan and Canada. Some of those teams always have hired support, colourfully attired and led by choirmasters and mistresses in neat rows of officially sponsored supporters, often in front row seats. But most of the parts of the crowd voluble at all at Rooty Hill were high-voiced pubescent and early-adolescent Australian kids. ‘Go Cuba Go’, squeaked a few dozen of these. Behind the big moments of the Olympics, those with the 112,000 crowds, there’s the Little Olympics. Modest crowds, esoteric sports, ambitious administrators – the Argentinean boss of the International Softball Federation could get millions of dollars of revenue from the International Olympic Committee, as well as gongs and awards and all the trappings that come with the ceremonial culture of world sport. No wonder he looked plump, contented and happy as he received one of these trinkets before the China-Cuba game.

Softball had debued at Atlanta, when the USA beat China 3-1 to get gold. These nations are big markets for the men behind the scenes of the expansion of women’s sports. But if you go to some of these Little Games, and don’t hide in the suites of Sydney’s top hotels, or get tempted to the delights of the Blue Mountains’ Yulefest, you’ll see what really goes on. The Olympic Park is what SOCOG organiser Steve Jones called a “Disneyworld of Sport”. The crowds there are like any holiday crowd at a day out at the local theme park – as long as they can afford the admission to something, they’ll have the day out for ever. At Rooty Hill it was in a sense the same, but also very different. It was an eight-hour round trip that reminded me of nothing if not the dutiful attendance at the school fête.

© Alan Tomlinson
September 26 2000, Stanmore, Sydney, Australia