Eternity: across the sidewalks of Sydney last century, street poet Arthur Stace meticulously chalked his hope. Last Friday evening, eternity was writ large in Sydney's Olympic Stadium at the climax of the Opening Ceremony's hourlong Australian cultural showcase. As tap dancers gave way to 13-year-old Nikki Webster and Djakapurra Munyarryun being levitated together toward the heavens, fireworks erupted across a screen in the shape of the Harbour Bridge, with Stace's copperplate script emblazoned on it.
Just as unforgettable was the grin that later lit up the face of Cathy Freeman as she became the last Olympian to be handed the torch after a tantalizing relay around the stadium, from Raelene Boyle and Betty Cuthbert, to Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King. And then an eternity it really seemed, as the flaming cauldron wobbled above Freeman's head, stopped, then began its agonizingly slow crawl up the 70-meter waterfall. A small engineering problem had caused "some extraordinary adrenaline rushes" among the organizers, said master of ceremonies Ric Birch. But by evening's end, the ring of fire was in place, and with it burned all the promise of the 27th Olympiad.
It will take more than symbols to rekindle an Olympic spirit dampened in recent times by dishonor and disgrace. And after Atlanta, Sydney was anxious to produce a Games uncluttered by commercialism or catastrophe. If the opening ceremony is anything to go by, it might just succeed. As the helicopters, 47 TV cameras, 110,000 pairs of eyes in the stadium and billions around the world zeroed in on Homebush, it was clear that nothing had been left to chance. "Don't forget to look for your audience leader," the crowd was told before proceedings began, "to know when exactly to take your cues." But in the ceremony's genuinely showstopping moments as Meryl Tankard's aerial ballet turned the stadium into a giant fishbowl, as an Olympic flag unfurled from the one end of the stadium across the athletes like the spume of surf the only appropriate response was awe.
In a tableau of seamless, often gorgeous image-making, it was the wobble of that flame that made it all memorable and the other bursts of spontaneity that broke through the tightly controlled script. Many of these came with the Parade of Athletes, when not even on-field prompters could hurry the joyful gambol of competitors claiming center stage. As the ceremony's artistic director, David Atkins, later quipped, "You can't get Brazil to march in straight lines." Then, as the evening moved into overdrive, there was diva Tina Arena's deep breath, and wink to the orchestra, before she launched into "The Flame," Gould's girlish skip and Freeman's giggle. Sydney doesn't like to stand on ceremony, and as the flame was hoisted, the golden girls grouped together and chatted as if at a family barbecue.
Compared with Atlanta's handover ceremony four years ago, when inflatable kangaroos bounced on bicycles, Sydney's show was relatively cringe-free. "It was everything we wanted and more," said Sydneysider Heather Georgulis, speaking for many. "It was very Australian and made you proud to be an Australian." With 120 stockmen on horseback, 900 indigenous performers and 100 lawn mowers variously arabesquing across the stage, the mood called to mind a backyard corroboree. Stilt walkers and flaming Ned Kellys added levity, and complex logistics were made to look like child's play. "I wasn't scared," said aerial star Nikki Webster, who flew on cables 25 meters above the stage. "I was just enjoying myself and having heaps and heaps of fun." If the "Nature" and "Arrivals" segments sometimes appeared like a garish fruit salad, the organizers could be forgiven. "We're the entree," said artistic director Atkins.
Indeed, with a record 199 competing nations present, the night's real stars were the athletes: from the lone representative of Brunei Darussalam to the 628-strong Australian team. Relaxed in their ocher-colored car coats and slinging toy kangaroos into the crowd, the Australians basked in the warmest applause. But beyond the nationalism there was much goodwill toward the four athletes from East Timor, parading for the first time since their homeland's independence, as were teams from Eritrea, Palau and Micronesia. Even more stirring was the standing ovation given to the North and South Korean athletes, who, although they will compete separately, marched together in support of reunification. After all, said a North Korean official earlier in the week, "we are the same blood."
They weren't the only countries to be galvanized by the spirit of the Games. Passing through 11,000 hands during the torch relay's 100-day, 27,000-km journey, the Olympic flame has brought Australia into closer touch with itself. The relay "symbolizes everything that's good about the Games," former marathon champion Robert de Castella has said. "Somehow it's been able to capture the balance between the grass roots and the elite side of the Olympics." In a chain of simple gestures, the Olympic ideal was made tangible.
As fiercely as the flame burns the hope of a Games "without doping and without drugs," as Hockeyroos star Rechelle Hawkes said in the Olympic oath. And in choosing Cathy Freeman as the flame's final custodian, Games officials rekindled another hope. It was there in Freeman's eyes as the cauldron rose a dedication not only to individual victory but to a collective one as well: to unity between black and white Australians. For a moment last Friday evening, anything seemed possible.
With reporting by Lisa Clausen/Sydney