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Padraic P. McGuinness, “It’s about money — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 28, 2000, p. 8.

The essential commercialism of the Olympics is true of the Australian and nearly all the other competitors, writes Padraic P. McGuinness.

The absurdity of the cult of amateurism in sport has never been clearer than in the present Games. While the general pleasure and good feeling the event has aroused are welcome, and the high point for everyone the general outpouring of joy at Cathy Freeman’s gold medal, the whole event is essentially about money.

Not just private money, either — one of those petty ideologues on the ABC only the other day was claiming that the main point of this Olympics was the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, as if there was some kind of virtue in this. The Cuban athletes competing are about as amateur in their status as Greg Norman the golfer — they are handsomely paid and maintained by the totalitarian regime in Cuba, and have no other source of income.

They are marketing the prestige of the Cuban state, and are paid handsomely for this. What makes this any different from flogging sandshoes? Only one thing — you can move from one manufacturer to another without penalty; one would not want to be in the shoes of the Cuban athletes’ families if their champions should decide to defect. At least in the evil world of commerce and capitalism it is possible to transfer from one sponsor to another without penalty.

The essential commercialism of the Olympics is true of Australian and nearly all other competitors. They enjoy a great deal of sponsorship, whether by way of scholarship or other training assistance. And we all know, and are glad, that Cathy’s financial future is now secure as a result of the flood of sponsorship offers she will receive, deservedly, for the rest of her life whether or not she enters politics. She has already in fact entered politics, willy-nilly. For running throughout the discussion on the Games among Australians has been a strong thread of politics.

In this case, most people rightly are delighted by the fact that Cathy Freeman has done so much to raise the morale and self-esteem of all Aborigines. That should be beyond politics. Equally, no-one sensible would cavil at the prominence given to women at the opening ceremony — some special recognition is surely due after so long a past of eclipse in the sporting arena. But there has been a lot of political point-scoring along the way which has little to do with the real achievements of the Games.

The usual mean-minded grizzling about the presence of the Prime Minister at the Games has not ceased for a moment — whatever John Howard did these days would be turned into a cause for derision. But does anyone really suggest for a moment that it would have been better for the PM not to attend the Games, with his wife, and to manifest his obvious genuine delight in them? Surely this kind of inability to forget domestic political hatreds for a moment is the worst aspect of the Australian political debate.

It was amusing to see the reception of the two opinion polls, one of which showed absolutely no change in the PMs standing in the public mind (a decline of two points was exactly within the margin of error), while the other showed a substantial surge. Either the latter was ignored, or discounted as merely temporary. Equally, there was no shortage of shabby political use of Cathy’s triumph as a counter in the struggle for control of Aboriginal policy. The worth of the woman was evident in her totally apolitical and genuine response to her win, with absolutely no attempt to exploit it for personal or political purposes.

Overall the most endearing characteristic of the Australian athletes was their grace, whether in victory or defeat. There was little of the chest-thumping Tarzan behaviour that so often mars modern sporting contests, virtually none of the whingeing excuses and complaints in defeat. That kids who have already been exposed so long to adulatory publicity can behave so well and keep their heads is really the greatest of our national achievements at the Games.

Perhaps the question ought to be how well the rest of us have kept our heads. This has nothing to do with the general enthusiasm for the opening ceremony, which was of course well-done kitsch on the large scale — indeed, a fine example of the kind of mass art which was the creation of the totalitarian movements of the 20th century.

It was directly in the lineage of the Nuremberg rally, or the mass calisthenic displays of the Soviets, an evocation of the emotions of the crowd and a means of creating mass solidarity in the service of a cause. Happily, while the ceremony succeeded, along with the events of the Games themselves, admirably in producing a general warmth and national solidarity, this will not become the basis of any future movements.

It is a healthy thing to be able to enjoy the emotions of solidarity and mass purpose so long as there is no chance of their souring into a means of social control. When the Games are cover the holiday will be over, and we can go back to our normal lives lightened by the afterglow of a successful event but able to resort to the normal emotions of private life. Making money is always a less harmful activity than mass politics.

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