The following is a commentry from the ABC coverage of the Olympic Games. Have a read through the commentators thoughts and see what you learn about Australian National Identity.
What did you learn about Australian National Identity from watching the Opening of the Sydney Olympic Games?
The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games placed Australia in the international spotlight as never before. The Opening Ceremony attracted an estimated television audience of three and a half billion people.
SAMARANCH, I.O.C: ‘G’day Sydney, g’day Australia.”
ABC games coverage: “Australia is about to stand up before the world and say this is who we are and this is how we do it, and we are absolutely delighted to be here to bring out interpretation of that to you. Let the show begin, let it begin and it has begun. An Australian stockhorse bursting out into the area, which is covered in an arid dry Australian landscape of a fabric and it looks absolutely magnificent.”
“120 whalers is part of this demonstration, the horse that made Australia after settlement of course by white Australians, broke the tyranny of distance in the outback and played such an extraordinary emotional role in the cultural life in Australia. And they form up and move in long lines out from the southern to the northern end and then back around the perimeter.”
“To the strains of the ‘Man from Snowy River’ played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”
“If you can picture hundreds of sheets of galvanised iron, bits of old machinery, water tanks, some complete and some not, the water tanks being rolled around, sometimes by performers inside the tank and other performers bouncing precariously on top of the tanks as they roll them round like so many rubber balls.”
“And the sheets of timber used as percussion instruments and now as great fans bowing, they’re on the backs of performers.” “And it’s been joined on the stadium floor by corrugated iron sheets, which are now running out onto the stadium. The material, the building material which made the bush.”
SUE SLAMEN: The Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Sydney Games are rich grounds for cultural interpretation, and are such are often replayed to students at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Melbourne’s Monash University.
STUDENTS: “As a Melbournian all of my life I’ve never had corrugated iron roof and I’ve never had a rain tank in my backyard. I know that one of my colleagues here will differ because she comes from the country.
“Well yes I grew up on the block with the hills hoist and the mowing machine and the corrugated iron roof, the rainwater tank. So to me that was my childhood, to me that’s Australia. But I suppose it’s all subjective depending on your own experience. You know yes, Australia’s moving towards urbanisation of inner city etc., but there’s still people out there who live like that, I mean there’s still people out there who want to live like that as well. Perhaps the country was too much over emphasised but I think it’s definitely a very, very important part of Australia.”
“I guess I also grew up on a property in the middle of nowhere, so I didn’t expect that country representation, I was pretty proud that they bothered to include that. Perhaps not as much as they did, but like the opening bit with the horses, I thought that was fantastic with the Man from Snowy River theme etc., yeah, that was really great, that was impressive for me and all my friends that I watched it with.”
“I think traditionally representations of Australia include that country image and that’s how we’ve been promoted to the rest of the world, so that had to be included in the opening ceremony. A city’s a city to a lot of people I suppose but Australia is all about the outback, that’s how we’ve been promoted to the rest of the world, and that obviously came through very strongly in the opening ceremony.”
“There was also a lot of other publicity, like Sydney itself and all the ads before the Olympics going everywhere showing Sydney and the beaches and the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, etc., etc., etc. Also in the opening ceremony you saw the torch being run through the streets etc., that was shown and included in the opening ceremony. But it was also nice how all the crowd had their little gift packs on their seats and they got to have their torches and showed that they were all involved, and Australians were having fun that night.”
(Music: Aussis Aussie Aussie by The Aussie Allstars)
GRAEME DAVISON: “It’s remarkable isn’t it how when we think of the World Cup or we think of the Olympic Games how far national identity in general is projected through sport. Increasingly it seems that sport is the kind of lingua franca, it’s the common language that enables nations to talk to each other and project themselves to each other. Perhaps 100 years ago we would have been attending trade fairs, or 50 years ago we would have been more interested in war as a demonstration of national character and identity, but now in many ways I think sport has become the substitute for war.”
SUE SLAMEN: Professor Graeme Davison from the School of Historical Studies at Monash University has written extensively on Australian nationalism.
Australians have always seen sport as very important to their national identity, and in Sydney 2000, like players on a field; they were playing to a global audience….
GRAEME DAVISON: “So it was a very big occasion and it’s not surprising that Australia invested an awful lot in the effort to try and project a very favourable image of what the country was.
SUE SLAMEN: Now let’s come to some of those images, because as we Australians could enjoy seeing rugged bush figures mounted on their horses coming into the arena, associated with the settlement of the country, the Victa lawnmowers that helped tame the suburbs if you like. What do you think though overseas audiences would have made of those symbols that we associate with the various phases of Australian history?
GRAEME DAVISON: Well some of them I think for example the ceremony began as I recall with the ‘Man from Snowy River’ and with the horsemen, and that taps into a very readily recognisable frontier image of Australia. It’s one that is strong in Australian history and reminds us of Banjo Patterson and of the great bush ballads and so on, and of course it has an immediate connection, particularly for American audiences, which were very critical for the 2000 Olympics. So Americans immediately connect to that set of images about horsemen and wild frontiersmen and so on. But then as you say there are a very wide range of other images projected, some for example to do with Australian Aboriginality were relatively novel in the way in which Australians projected themselves. For example in 1956 there was almost no reference to Aboriginality in the way in which Australia projected itself. That now became much more salient, much more central, and again of course it connects strongly with some elements of American culture. Americans again sympathise strongly with the emancipatory efforts of Aboriginal people to become part of the nation in an important sense. Other bits like those characters dancing in Blundstone boots and the Victa lawnmowers were ones that I think a lot of American commentators had a lot of difficulty in connecting with. Not because they didn’t know what they were, but they had a sense I think that occasions like this require just a little more solemnity, they didn’t really know whether a nation that would send itself up as Australia appeared to be doing in the opening ceremony could really be taken seriously. They thought that Australians had difficulty in taking themselves seriously.
SUE SLAMEN: Well of course as Aussies we know that to be the case, that we don’t always take ourselves or our politicians or figures of authority seriously, and your comments just brought to mind someone else’s analysis of the Games when they said, the Sydney Olympics in the opening and closing was not regimented. That it had an informality almost a kind of anarchic quality about it. Does that ring true for you?
GRAEME DAVISON: It was something that I think was very Sydney too, I think some of the cultural expression of the 2000 Olympics was very expressive of Sydney culture, it was very glitzy, it was very showy, it had lots of surface, I think that was part of what was going on. The informality of course is something of a tradition. If you look back to ’56, the ’56 Olympics were the first Olympic games in which the competitors had not marched at the closing ceremony in national groups, but had broken and had walked informally rather than marched. Now that I think does pick up something about Australian character and identity, it’s the kind of laid-back attitude that Australians tend to have adopted. And yet once against some American commentators questioned that. One of them I remember used to talk about how he made his way around during the 2000 Olympics, he remarked the air of informality on the surface, about the way in which everybody would say no worries. But that phrase ‘no worries’ led him to question whether or not below the surface there wasn’t a bit of anxiety, there wasn’t a bit of worry, and the worry attaching itself particularly to the question of people wondering what are the rest of the world thinking of us, are they really thinking that we are as good as we think we are ourselves. The cultural critic Arthur Phillips who years ago coined the phrase, the cultural cringe, and in some ways that was reflective of the fact that Australians are very dependent upon the approval of others for who they are themselves. You might say that it means that in some respects Australians as a nation, not necessarily as individuals, have a relatively weak sense of self, and that partly derives from the sense of the colonial relationships, of a long period of separation from the rest of Europe, there was a long period in which Australians had to wait weeks to know what Europe thought of things that they’d done. So that legacy of colonialism I think is still there in the way in which Australians think of themselves. There’s a phrase that we used to use about footballers, we’d talk about a football player grandstanding, he’s playing to the grandstand rather than playing to the people on the field, and grandstanding I think is a bit of an Australian characteristic.”
STUDENT: “As an Australian I’m pretty proud to live in this country and I remember watching the opening ceremony just cringing, just wondering what the rest of the world would be thinking of some of the icons that we presented. And I’d be interested to get some feedback from other people to see whether they understood it, because a lot of the representations that were put on the screen we got them as Australians but I wonder if other people got it from other countries that aren’t familiar with our culture, necessarily.”
STUDENT: “The thing is that as a foreigner you don’t know that the Australian dream is represented by a guy in a funny t-shirt with a lawnmower, so you have absolutely no clue what it is about. So that’s what was striking to me.”
STUDENT: “The mowing related back to the Australian dream, the quarter acre block and how everyone would get up on a Saturday morning, go out there mow the lawn, then wash the car, then take the family for a drive down the coast in their Holden sedan, stop off at the shop for a pie for lunch, see some kangaroos and return back home and do more of the same on Sunday.”
OLYMPIC GAMES CEREMONY: “The little Australian girl went to the centre of Stadium Australia, put down a beach towel, some zinc cream on her nose, fell asleep and has started dreaming. The first dream is under the water and we’re seeing beautiful fish, octopus and other creatures of the sea.
The little Australian girl has now gone through an awakening ceremony a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony follows.
The little girl’s dream is continuing, coming to Australia now is White Man….”
STUDENT: “It’s interesting that despite the stress on multiculturalism and the fact that they’re trying to portray Australia as a place where you see every face. If your face exists it’s going to be found there. The dream girl, that central character is white and blond and looks like she comes from a little house in the suburbs, and Australian advertising, is much the same. When you look at billboards, most of the people on them are white and very European looking, and she looks home grown, the girl next door, which is a very nice image but it doesn’t scream multiculturalism.”
STUDENT: “I liked that in the starting scene because they were mentioned because I didn’t expect that because for example I remember the beginning ceremony of Atlanta and I think didn’t mention the native Americans at all. And I liked that they well thought about its origins or the Aborigines at all.”
STUDENT: “Well I think that the whole ceremony was like for the nation was waiting if Cathy Freeman is really lighting the fire or not, and so everyone is curious and is just waiting for the ceremony to end and really see if Australia kind of well says sorry to the Aborigines and the indigenous people what they did to their culture and their nation. And I think while the rest of the world I don’t know, might be Australians, but the rest of the world were really impressed and thought well the next Olympic games will have to do something very special to beat that ceremony and the whole games. It was that everyone was waiting really to see if an Aboriginal lit the fire or not.”
GAMES COMMENTATOR: “And then it was Cathy Freeman’s turn, she began the last ascent, up the cascading waterfall of fire and water to light the Games of the 27th Olympiad begin.”
NEWSREADER: “Cathy Freeman has had a big week. A household name in Australia before the opening ceremony, a television audience of almost four billion has ensured her celebrity has travelled over the seas and attracted media attention from far and wide. When asked to comment about the effect her lighting the cauldron had on the Aboriginal community she had this to say: “Oh, it was definitely a big boost to the Aboriginal community because you know it was historical, it was extremely significant, you know it’s the first. So yeah thanks, guys, a tremendous honour for the Aboriginal people.”
LEANNE WHITE: “Cathy Freeman was the excellent choice for that particular event. The torch relay had taken place and that in itself was an exercise in cohesiveness, of bonding the nation together, the flame arrived at Ayres Rock, Uluru and went to a number of communities around the nation over a hundred days and finished with Cathy Freeman lighting the flame, lighting the cauldron. That was an event which did connect the nation.”
SUE SLAMEN: Leanne White co-ordinates the undergraduate program at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.
Indigenous communities had been directly involved in the Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies and a nation-wide ‘Torch Relay’.
LEANNE WHITE: “Ironically enough, the whole flame had started at Uluru, at Ayres Rock and over 100 days had made its way around the country and communities came out to that event. I think the organisers were taken by surprise at how popular the torch ceremony was and how various people around the country, hundreds and hundreds were involved in that event and saw that as a real bonding exercise. And finishing at Stadium Australia with Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron and the elements, the natural elements of fire and water that all came together and was particularly mesmerising for many people, and it’s an image which stays in the national psyche.
SUE SLAMEN: Now Leanne you’ve surveyed the way Australians have celebrated national milestones, and I’m thinking in particular throughout our brief history, 1838, 1888, 1938 and 1988, the bicentenary, what do these commemorations, tell us about the way we see ourselves as a nation?
LEANNE WHITE: Well the celebration of the landing in 1788 was first celebrated 50 years later in 1838 and those celebrations then were known as Anniversary Day, and essentially there was a jubilee waltz, a regatta, a 50 gun salute and very traditional British ways of celebrating what was then known as Anniversary Day.
SUE SLAMEN: This is to commemorate the first fleet landing in Sydney, Captain Cook and his crew claiming Australia for the British?
LEANNE WHITE: Yes, very much a reliving of Australia as a very British nation and a British way of celebrating that particular event.”
1988 ARCHIVE: “On the 26th of January 1788 the first fleet arrived in Sydney harbour. It was the start of Australia’s modern history.”
“Celebrating our sporting achievements has become one of the most outward expressions of national pride. Now Australians are being invited to summon the same spirit for a much bigger occasion and one that will last for a whole year. The Australian bicentenary, Bicentennial, the commemoration of Australia’s 200th anniversary.”
“Our oldest culture is found in the arts, crafts and history of Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders, a culture which will be given honoured and active expression during 1988.”
LEANNE WHITE: “So while there was some change and moving on as the nation developed, many of those same reliving of the events took place. They were centred around Sydney, tall ships, re-enactments of the landing as it was known, various indigenous groups were involved and invited to become part of the event. But particularly in 1988 indigenous people referred to January 26 as Invasion Day, and an interesting event that did take place in that year was an Aboriginal elder, Burnam Burnam, who decided to place the Aboriginal flag on a beach in England. In fact on the white cliffs of Dover to make the point that here we are, we are taking the land, we are proclaiming this space in the name of indigenous Australia. And that was an event that was televised here and also around the world, people were quite interested in that concept, and they essentially tried to turn the tables on this myth of Australia as being a nation that’s only 200 years old.”
SUE SLAMEN: The choice of Cathy Freeman to light the Olympic flame at the Sydney Games sent out a powerful message about reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
And while there’s been growing support for reconciliation, the Director of the Indigenous Studies Centre at Monash University, Lynette Russell, reminds us that there is still a long way to go.
LYNETTE RUSSELL: “We’ve already seen a number of marches and events to do with reconciliation, there was the very popular walk over the Harbour Bridge in which people talking of hundreds of thousands of people participating. And for the most part this means that middle class white Australians now feel comfortable and believe that we are in fact a reconciled nation. But as long as Aboriginal people suffer the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality, I don’t see how we could possibly be reconciled. The future has to actually be improved, we have to have better education, better health services, and there’s no question that the life of individual Aboriginal people has to be improved, otherwise this isn’t reconciliation at all.
SUE SLAMEN: Well certainly the presentation of indigenous issues and Aboriginal Australia during the Sydney Olympic Games was markedly different wasn’t it to earlier national milestones. For instance how we commemorated 1988, the 200 years since the arrival or as Aboriginal Australians saw it, the invasion of Europeans to Australia. How do you account for what seemed like a real seachange in the way the Sydney Olympics presented indigenous Australia to the world and the way that the 1988 Bicentenary seemed to invite protest?
LYNETTE RUSSELL: Well of course between 1988 and the year 2000 three rather dramatic events took place. First the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which brought Aboriginal issues out to the fore, and social justice issues. We had of course the Mabo decision and the subsequent legislation. The Mabo decision refers to Eddie Mabo, who was a Murray islander from Torres Strait who had taken the government to court in order to establish that he had maintained native title rights to his traditional lands. This was the first time in Australia that anyone had ever actually achieved this, and what happened was he established, the court established that native title continued to exist and thus overturned what had up until then been a 200 plus year fallacy that this continent was Terra Nullius, when Europeans first arrived here. Terra Nullius meaning literally an empty land, which of course it clearly was not. So we had in the 12 years between the bicentenary and the Olympics we had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody as I said, we also had the Mabo decision and then we had the Bringing Them Home report in which the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission examined the testimonies of vast numbers of people who were removed, forcibly removed, separated from their families, children taken from families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children. And I believe that those three events all coalesced in a sense to mean that from that point on Aboriginal issues could never be swept under the carpet again, they could never be forgotten. These three things placed into the consciousness of contemporary middle class white Australia Aboriginal issues and those Aboriginal issues became or indigenous issues became absolutely fundamentally important, and therefore it’s that prominence that actually means that by the time we get to the Olympics we have to incorporate them.
SUE SLAMEN: I know when I attended the recent Mabo conference here in Melbourne, some of the Aboriginal leaders spoke of white Australia as being in denial as they saw it for far too long. There’s no going back given those three events now?
LYNETTE RUSSELL: No, there’s definitely no going back. But yes people did live in denial and not just white Australians, I mean my own experience of my own family there’s been people who have denied that they had Aboriginal heritage for their entire lives and others who have embraced it and celebrated it. Denial is a powerful, extremely powerful force but it’s one that we can actually overcome, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever go back from here.”
SUE SLAMEN: Lynette Russell, who holds the Chair in Aboriginal Studies at Monash University.
(Music: My Country by Midnight Oil)