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The Opening Ceremony was a wonderful tribute to Australia brilliantly put together by Ric Birch but don’t overlook the powerful political messages that it contained.

Those that were in the stadium have certainly raved about it. Crikey’s philosopher at large, Alan Hayek, described it as “the best thing I have ever seen”. And the man who tutored Lachlan Murdoch in philosophy at Princeton has seen a lot in his 15 years on the road.

While people froth at the mouth about the performances, the political symbolism appears to have been understated. Ask yourself this question, would the Opening Ceremony have been different if John Fahey was Premier of NSW? Absolutely?

It was a highly politically correct statement that only a Labor government cou.ld bankroll – which they have to the tune of more than $2.5 billion. Tributes to women, Indigenous Australians and working class blokes in flannos wielding the tools of the trade were some of the enduring symbols of the ceremony.

You should not forget that Michael Knight is a former Builders Laborers Federation (BLF) organiser from working class Campbelltown. The opening ceremony was certainly true to his roots.

Squirm Johnny squirm

John Howard must have been squirming through all the Dreamtime celebrations as it makes his inability to say Sorry look all the more unsustainable. Labor have been very smart in simultaneously neutralising the prospect of Aboriginal protest and turning up the political heat on the Liberals. They did this first through the Reconciliation Walk and secondly by arguably devoting a disproportionately large amount of Opening Ceremony time to more Reconciliation statements. The Aboriginal movement could hardly argue they’ve been hard done by during the Olympics and turn out in mass protest.

Fantastic Cathy and a great Labor statement

Crikey for one was delighted to see Cathy Freeman light the torch. Maybe Kieran Perkins ruled himself out with his ill-founded “drug cheat” labelling of American swimmer Gary Hall. And maybe Dawn Fraser ruled herself out with her attack on the IOC freeloaders last year. But Cathy Freeman certainly didn’t do her chances any damage by recently attacking the Howard Government for failing to say sorry for the Stolen Generation. Kim Beazley must have been delighted that the gang of three – Coatesie, Dodgy Mayor Richo and the former BLF headkicker – opted for the most political flame lighting option available. You should not forget there will be a federal election and three state elections in the next 12 months.

Dawn misses gold but gets silver and bronze

Dawnie – another good Laborite – certainly extracted her pound of flesh for missing out. Despite her baggings of the IOC, she scored Juan as her date for the Opening Ceremony. The former Fascist sports minister from Spain was caught out lying again when he claimed publicly that this was his idea. Truth be known, it was Coatsie who came up with it. And while Dawnie publicly moaned about not being able to carry the torch across the Harbour Bridge, she got the great consolation prize of being able to share it around the track in the “Women’s Celebration” at the Opening Ceremony.

Lawnmowers aside, where was the urban portrayal

The Victa lawnmower scene was certainly very twee and it served to highlight how few Australian-owned icons there are left. The Four’n’Twenty Pie and Vegemite have long gone offshore. Maybe they should done something with the Hills Hoist and the white picket fence as well – at least the PM would have liked it. And the strong emphasis on the outback belies the fact that Australia has one of the most urbanised society’s in the world. Then again, what can you say about urbanised Australia that is particularly special?

Nicki Webster got hailed locally and we loved her role although the international press was less sympathetic with the AFR reporting that Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post wrote that:

“Let me just say that I have got nothing personal against That Child, after an hour and forty minutes I wouldn’t have minded if her mother had screamed, like Merryl Streep, ‘The Dingo ate my baby’.”

The Yanks always seem to bring it back to what they know courtesy of Hollywood.

What was wrong with the GG

There was something annoying about seeing John Howard beaming away in the second row behind the Governor General. Afterall, NSW Premer Bob Carr described the Olympics as a global branding exercise yet we’ve still failed to cut ties with the Poms and have their flag in our flag. Thanks for that Johnny. Again, this will all help Labor in the next Federal election as they attempt to galvanise the prevailing pro-Republican sentiment into votes. The GG’s stumbling and oh-so-short speech has perplexed many people. For a start, why didn’t he thank the original Aboriginal occupiers of the turf at Homebush like he does at most of his speeches. We hate to say it, but even little Johnny or the Queen could have given a better speech than the Queen’s man.

Media Challenges

The media were present with deadline difficulties by the opening ceremony. Rupert’s Daily Telegraph sneakily ran pictures from the dress rehearsal in its first edition with a tiny disclosure line and then replaced most of them for the second edition. The coverage was certainly breathless in the Tele, as you would expect from the official Olympic media and co-sponsor. The Sydney Morning Herald has certainly been more balanced thus far but some News Ltd types were saying they stuffed up in not getting their first edition on Saturday morning out to Homebush on time.

Where were the Minogue Girls

The choice of Olivia Newton John was interesting on the patriotism stakes given that she was born in England and now lives in America. That said, ONJ and Farnsy were a bit harshly treated by Peter Reuhl in the Fin Review who said they looked like they were “MIAs in Las Vegas”. Australia has produced so much government-underwritten talent of late through ventures such as JJJ that it was surprising the likes of Natalie Imburglar and Savages in the Garden were not roped in. The Minogue girls from Melboune were also notably absent.

That’s enough from me for now. Let’s now take a look at what one of Crikey’s correspondents thought of the dress rehearsal.

THE OPENING CEREMONY REHEARSAL
By Frieda Loader

Just five days to go until the big night, but Ric Birch and his cast of thousands must be wishing it were more like five weeks. The Olympic ceremonies coordinator would have been breathing a sigh of relief that he had taken such a heavy-handed approach to banning media coverage of Saturday night’s event. Several crucial segments simply didn’t follow the script, and the scale of at least one of the blunders would have left even the usually unflappable Birch looking skyward for help.

Of course it was a rehearsal, and there’s no doubt television viewers across the world will be impressed when it hits their screens. With the media having been threatened with exclusion from the main event if they revealed any more of the contents of the spectacle, Birch felt game enough to tell the 90,000 or so people who braved the cold they would see “the greatest Opening Ceremony of any Olympic Games”.

For a while it looked like his words might be more than the usual Olympic style PR spin. With David Fordham (who was forced to scamper around the stage to collect his cue cards after the wind swept them away) and Chris Bath having completed the preamble, the much vaunted Man From Snowy River segment began with 200 stockmen and women galloping into the arena, each carrying an Olympic flag. The impact was immediate, the gasps affirming the emotive qualities of Aussies, Drizabones, RM Williams boots, Akubra hats and horses. But just when things were going so well, the first snag was caught.

Most people didn’t notice it, but while Australia’s true-blue bushies cantered around outside, the face of Sydney’s welcome to the world was doing circles of his own in the access tunnel. Paul Hogan showed those few who could see him that he has far greater control over Australia’s shrimp and water-buffalo populations than its horseflesh. His mount took fright, and took Hogan on a giddy spin in the tunnel. The upshot being that he didn’t make it out into the centre of the arena where he was due to swap his anonymous stockman’s hat for the synonymous headgear of Mick Dundee, look into the camera and say “G’day”.

For most of the public, there to see loved ones on stage or just for a sticky beak at the real deal without needing to take out a mortgage, Hogan going MIA was no real shame. Pre-ceremony attempts to get the crowd to scream “G’day” were met with indifference if not outright embarrassment. Fordham could barely raise a murmur of support, meaning either the Sydney public doesn’t think “G’day” is reflective of everyday Australia, or Fordham isn’t the right warm-up man.

Sticky moment number two came soon after. A huge flag, apparently with “G’day” emblazoned across it, fell from the overhead wiring into a crumpled heap in the middle of the arena. Perhaps the Sydney public were right, and a higher power was passing a message on to Birch…

The next couple of acts went off smoothly enough. Colourful representations of the undersea world (Deep Sea Dreaming) and local fauna (Nature) came either side of an aboriginal-influenced segment called Awakening, and a flaming production that saw 200 performers breathing fire around the arena. This one’s called Fire, and according to the outrageously priced $15 souvenir program, it depicts the Aboriginal creation spirit and lawmaker, the Wandjina, in its role as destroyer and creator.

What followed was a loooong parade of Aussie icons called Tin Symphony, designed to show the ingenuity of Australians. Ned Kelly gets a big run, as does corrugated iron. But the appearance of dozens of Victa lawnmowers was probably a little too much for many.

The upbeat Arrivals segment morphs into a tap extravaganza with Dein Perry at the helm and a 1000 dancers stamping in tune. It’s meant to pay homage to the working people of Australia and winds up in a fury of costumes as characters from all the previous segments invade the field.

When the 2000 members of the marching band file out of the stands the first reaction is to have an immediate understanding of Ric Birch’s idea. The man is indeed a visionary, and the sight of so many musicians beating and blowing for all their worth as they march in time is without question impressive. But a closer observation exposes the undeniable truth ignored by so many during the brouhaha over the band’s composition – only the Americans really know how to do this sort of thing.

I felt for Birch at the moment I watched hundreds of players lined up above what will soon be the 100m straight of the athletics track. They were in a line alright, but it was about as straight as Torch Relay route. And the band played Waltzing Matilda, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport and Road to Gundagai, to name but a few, but will need to get the marching manoeuvres sorted soon to avoid embarrassment … is it too late to ship in some more Americans?

Farnesy and Olivia radiated as they belted out Dare to Dream, a song you are going to be hearing ad nuseaum in the coming weeks, and then it was time for the big set-piece that everyone will remember … hopefully for the right reasons.

I won’t give it all away, but I will suggest you keep a close eye on the southern stand once Olivia stops Daring, and if you’ll be there, leave sharp instruments at home.

Frieda

Peter Fray

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