Thylazine: The Australian
Journal of Arts, Ethics & Literature
THE OLYMPIC POET
[Above] 100 days absence following
the Olympic torch made for an overgrown garden. (Photo by Patricia Baillie,
In 2000 I was given a grant
from the Australia Council "to report in verse on all aspects of the Sydney
Olympic Games". This involved not just attending the 2000 Games but following
the Olympic flame on its 100-day "run" through most of the regions of Australia.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one that has left me with an ongoing
commitment to making sure there are other Olympic poets at future Games.
The idea of reviving the ancient office of Olympic poet was one that grew
upon me slowly, and was not in origin my own.
In 1991 I had accepted an invitation from the Greek government to attend a
celebration in Greece of "the 2500th anniversary of the birth of Hellenic
democracy". Owing to the importance of poetry to Greek cultural history, the
centrepiece of the celebrations was a sumptuously hosted World Conference of
Poets. After the conference, the poets were offered a tour, in which the
then-Minister for Culture participated, to some major cultural sites in Greece.
When we reached the ancient open-air theatre in Epidavros we were invited to
test the acoustics from the stage. When my turn came to address those worn and
ancient stones, I recited in Greek the opening lines of the Iliad.
This led me into a conversation that evening with some Greek-speaking members
about reviving links with antiquity. I can remember that one of them mentioned
that there was talk of Greece "reviving the office of Olympic poet" when Athens
next had the Olympics. I remember saying what a good idea that seemed; but I did
not inquire into the practicalities, nor into how seriously this idea was being
entertained or by whom. In fact I had no idea then that Australia was putting in
a bid for the Olympics, or that Sydney would have them ahead of Athens and in
the year 2000.
[Above] Mark O'Connor reading at the International Festival of Poets,
Zagreb. (Photo by Lana Derkac, 2006)
So, having proved that, on a sufficiently interesting topic, I could write
more or less to order, I felt bold enough to put forward my name. I talked to
Les Murray, another obvious candidate, who encouraged me to proceed. He said he
would not be a rival for the job, since he was disqualifying himself on a
technicality: "I can't stand sport". I later realized that this claim was more
generous than true, since he has in fact written some fine poems on sport. My
old environmental ally Judith Wright also offered to write a letter of support.
||When my own nation began to
catch pre-Olympic fever in 1999, I saw little prospect of my being able to
afford tickets to the Sydney Olympics, where some individual tickets cost close
to a thousand dollars. Yet as I lamented the little money and few opportunities
available to poets, it occurred to me that I might well look at writing about
The notion of "reviving the office of Olympic poet" struck me as something my
own country might well try. After all, there was no knowing if the (as yet
unformed) organisations that would create the subsequent games in Greece four
years later would initiate such a project if Australia did not.
Might I be that poet? I had just written a book of verse on the Snowy
Mountains region of Australia Tilting at Snowgums, on commission from
National Parks. Also, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office had recently
imported me to Britain as keynote speaker to open its 'Breath of Fresh Air'
That too had involved either having to hand or rapidly producing the right
sort of poems on the right environments and
But as yet there was no such 'job". Who in Australia would understand the
ancient (if now neglected) cultural links between poetry and the Olympics? Much
less fund an attempt to renew them at the other end of the earth? What I needed
seemed a tall order: a highly literate Australian politician, who was well read
in Greek antiquity, and also possessed strong influence on Australia's staging
of the Olympics.
Yet there was such a person: Bob Carr, the long serving Premier of the State
of New South Wales, of which the capital is Sydney. I knew that Carr was one of
the most well-read politicians in the English-speaking world. (He once took a
week's leave of absence from being Premier to attend the Sydney Writers'
Festival). Yet at that time I had never met him, and had no access or
introduction to him. Then, like a sign from the gods that this project was meant
to be, I opened Sydney's main newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, one
morning to find a review-article by Bob Carr titled 'My best books of the year'
- in which he praised one of my own books to the skies.
I phoned up his minders and asked to speak to the Premier. 'Not possible,'
they said bluntly. 'Well can I speak to the literary critic? I'd like to thank
him.' They relented so far as to take my number. 'But don't expect anything. He
has wall to wall appointments.' Ten minutes later Bob Carr phoned back, without
intermediary. He listened to the idea, liked it, and encouraged me to proceed.
Eventually, with his blessing, the Federal Australian government's
arts-funding arm, the Australia Council, gave me a fellowship, half of which was
for writing poems "on all aspects of the Sydney 2000 Games". As the phrase "all
aspects" implied, this was a literary grant, not a public relations project. I
was given a free hand to write about the Games from whatever angle I thought
The Australian media were immediately fascinated. In a year of Olympic
fervor, the idea of an Olympic poet turned literature into 'news'. One of the
great problems with poetry, as all publishers know, is that it is not 'news' and
often can scarcely be described as 'topical' at all. Often it would matter
little to a poem's impact if it had been published 5 years earlier - or later.
Hence in a world of ever-more-ephemeral attention spans, poetry tends to miss
[Above] Mark O'Connor, the poet
and environmental writer John Blay, and the short story writer Ian Rae on the
right, at a party at Mark's house. (Photo by Remi Barclay, 2005)
But publicity needed careful handling. At my suggestion, SOCOG, the powerful
autonomous Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, was informed of
the Australia Council's decision before it was publicized. They claimed to
'welcome' it; but it soon became clear that at least some of their committee
were miffed. Perhaps they feared that if they gave me a role in the Games the
International Olympic Committee (IOC) would feel they had taken an unauthorised
step. And in those early months, as SOCOG's relations with the media stumbled
from disaster to disaster, it may have seemed to some of their media people pure
madness to welcome backstage an independent literary writer whose responses they
could not predict.
Since I needed 'backstage access' to do my job, and since I wanted there to
be other Olympic poets at future Olympics, I made a point of ignoring all
rudenesses, and gently re-approaching SOCOG through various intermediaries. The
Minister for Arts, Peter McGauran, and his Labor opposite number, Bob McMullan,
were among those who generously did their best, but without success. It seemed
that this job was going to be as much about politics as literature. All my
requests for access to athletes, coaches, administrators, or ceremonies - not to
mention media-passes - were refused on the pedantic grounds that I was 'not a
In this, however, SOCOG shot itself in the foot. A huge media fuss had
erupted over the (largely unjustified) belief that the public would not be able
to get seats to the Games. Every media interview I did seemed to begin with the
topical question: would I be able to get in to see the Games. The news that even
'the semi-official poet of the Games' (as Tony Stephens of the Sydney Morning
Herald described me) was getting no help from SOCOG turned my situation from
a literary snippet into a news story.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) did not share SOCOG's
reservations. Their Cultural Section saw this as a coup for Australian culture,
arranged press conferences, and flew me to Sydney to make a DFAT video that
would bring my role to the attention of foreign journalists.
[Above] Mark O'Connor spends time with an archery competitor at the
Australian Academy of Sport, Canberra. (Photo donated by Sydney Morning Herald
photographer: Phil Carrick, 2000.)
However the media always wanted to cut corners and refer to me as "Our
Olympic poet". It was hard to get them to observe the distinction between having
a grant from the Australia Council to write about the Olympics and being "the
Olympic poet" in the sense of someone anointed by the International Olympic
Committee (IOC). Britain's Guardian newspaper for instance captioned an
article: "Australia has revived the office of Olympic Poet for the modern
Olympiads. Olympic poet Mark O'Connor explains what it's like to be asked to
fill the shoes of Pindar - and to respond instantly to each day's events." The
distinction they were ignoring is of some importance, because I believe it is
important that other nations should appoint their own "Olympic poets" for future
Olympics - and this time with the full and prior acceptance of the IOC. The
chance to score a first by appointing the first "true" Olympic poet of the
modern era is a not-inconsiderable carrot for countries like China and Britain
that have an Olympic Games coming up.
||I always made a point of
explaining to journalists the precise senses in which my situation was and was
not official; and emphasising that SOCOG was under no strict obligation to
recognise or help me.
A little to my surprise, the media sided strongly with me. In particular, the
various radio and TV programs of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC)
interviewed me at least three times a week during the 3 months that I was
following the Olympic Torch around Australia.
The fact that I was almost the only person following the entire path of the
Flame who was NOT beholden to SOCOG made me from their point of view a useful
independent commentator. Ironically, I was one of the first to report on how the
Torch Relay was turning into a popular success.
After months in which it seemed SOCOG could do nothing that did not draw
heavy criticism, they now could do no wrong. Their gamble in sending the Torch
first through "remote" (and heavily Aboriginal) areas turned into a stunning
It soon became clear that for several months of 2000 I would suffer a problem
that is almost unknown in the world of poets: excessive media coverage! This
brought its own dangers. Early on the day after my grant was announced, I was
under the shower when the phone rang. It was Radio National's A.M. program.
Could I give them a poem about the topical issue of people being mailed Olympic
tickets for the wrong events? And could they record it in 15 minutes? I said I'd
think about it while finishing the shower. Perhaps the rushing water helped. I
had just time to jot down a poem that might pass. It ended:
'Hush! Can you hear?
Still, writing poems under that sort of pressure was a recipe for mediocrity,
and I let it be known that there would be no more "instant" poems. I also
decided, in the interests of there being other "Olympic poets" after me that I
would avoid in future writing anything that smacked of satire upon the
organizers. After all, there is always going to be lots to complain about in the
organizing of an Olympics; and there is no guarantee that even the gentlest
satire will be forgiven by the organizers. Conversely such satirical poems are
likely to be of ephemeral interest, and to cover territory that is already well
covered by the media.
- All over the suburbs, the roar
envelopes tearing? And Yes!, at Number 10
It's Gold! Gold! Gold! for the
They've lit a fire. They're dancing on the lawn.
--- Not so
good at Number 15.
The Grampolinis are bit bronzed off.
They thrill to the
shrill of the soccer ref's whistle.
Hard luck! It's the Ladies' Nude Luge for
In any case, I had a more immediate problem. When it comes to literary
cuisine I had always been a believer in what Italians call il slow-food,
but clearly this would have to change. Quality would have to be partly traded
Yet how could a poet do several months' writing on the Games, an event that
is over in about 2 weeks? One answer was to start early. The Sydney Games were
preceded by the world's longest torch relay, including 100 days in which the
torch would be run through Australia. Since these were billed as the Green
Games, it made sense for an environmental poet like myself to follow the Olympic
flame on its 100-day route round the Australian continent. (I could not afford
to follow the international legs). That way I could observe all the
environments, human and non-human, the flame went through.
I envisaged a leisurely experience of Australia, following flame-bearing
joggers who moved at 8kms an hour. The reality was different. For one thing, the
flame was run only about 50 kms a day (100 runners, doing a half kilometre
each). That was what the media showed. What you didn't see was the Olympic flame
sitting in first-class with a gas mantle on its head and flying like the
clappers. The distances actually traveled on foot were relatively trivial.
For instance, about a day after first landing at Uluru (near Alice Springs in
Central Australia) the Olympic Flame was scheduled to fly 7000 kilometres East
to Brisbane. From there it would be driven up the East coast of Queensland
(being run through the towns but mainly traveling by car). Then in a single day
it would be flown to Thursday Island and to Darwin, and then to the northern end
of the thinly populated state of Western Australia, where it would very rapidly
move South (mainly by plane). By contrast it would later spend a lot more time
moving slowly through thickly populated areas of Victoria and New South Wales.
The aim of the 2000 torch relay was not to get the Olympic Flame from A to B,
but to put it on show all round Australia. This was very different from the 1956
Olympics, when the torch was carried on foot all the way from its first landing
in North Queensland south to Melbourne.
It was immediately obvious that no single vehicle I might buy or hire could
keep up with the Flame. I decided my best bet was to follow it by road at least
up to the northern tip of Queensland, then turn round and drive all the way
South and West (clockwise) round the rim of Australia's desert continent to meet
it again in South Australia as it came back counter-clockwise and Eastward (by
train) across the Nullarbor desert. That would actually give me a break of four
or five days from driving; but then it turned out these days were not to be
spent idly! The National Conference of English Teachers was being held in
Brisbane that year, and they wanted me to be their opening speaker. There was
just time to pause for four days of the conference in Brisbane, then drive like
mad to South Australia.
[Above] Mark O'Connor observing in
the bush. (Photo by Michelle Frenkel, 2000)
A further problem was that everywhere the Torch went, even in the Outback, it
would be the one day of the year when accommodation was either booked out or
impossibly expensive. The only option was to drive a vehicle I could sleep in.
Since hiring would cost even more, I decided I could afford (just) to buy an
enclosed van and re-sell it after the Games.
The other problem was that our dog Kendall, a cavalier spaniel and serial
charmer, had spent his life to date in and around my study each day, and would
have been traumatized by three months separation. I don't believe in abandoning
pets when they become inconvenient, so I decided to take a chance and bring him
Three days before the torch arrived in Uluru, I managed at last to buy a
secondhand Toyota troop-carrier in Canberra. It had tinted windows for privacy,
which made it quite a good sleeping chamber, and a diesel motor for efficiency.
I also had "a board" put in it, which meant I could sleep on top of the 'board"
with my gear stored underneath.
By the time this was done, time was desperately short. To be present at Uluru
(Ayers Rock) the morning the Flame landed, I would have to drive 22 hours a day
for 2 days, all the way from my home in Canberra -- without falling asleep at
the wheel. In fact I was so exhausted I only got three hours down the track
before I had to pull over and sleep. I was woken almost at once by a phone call
from ABC TV's Lateline program. Could they interview me at Uluru just after the
Flame's arrival, and soon after a radio interview with ABC's 'Breakfast'
program. Rashly I promised to be there for both programs, and drove on.
I had put an air mattress, already blown up, in the back. This meant I could
simply jump in the back and sleep for an hour twice a day when too exhausted to
drive further. Without that I would never have got there in time. I thought
Kendall would help me concentrate. Instead, he found a place just behind my
shoulder-blades on the air - mattress and snored contentedly in my ear all
through the long drive-while I was desperately wishing I too could climb into
the back and sleep.
Somehow I got to Uluru, at the end of my second all-night drive, with half an
hour to spare. I dimly remember seeing the torch (lit from the miner's lantern
in which the Flame traveled when in vehicles), beginning its run. I found a
public phone, and did the radio interview over it, and five minutes later could
remember nothing of what I had said. I noticed my hand was shaking from
sleeplessness. The TV interview, it seemed, was not for 3 hours, so I crawled
back into the troop carrier and slept blissfully till then.
I was not to see the torch again for some days, as it flew away East to
Brisbane. Catching up with it would involve another epic drive, due East across
the central deserts, but without the same sleepless pressure. It seemed my
interview had gone better than I knew. I was in demand for radio and TV
interviews in Alice Springs and did not get away till late in the day.
About 30 kilometres north of Alice Springs I found a small bitumen road on
the right, heading due East. The map said it would soon become a dirt road, but
showed it as being by far the most direct road to Brisbane. Local advice in
Alice Springs had ranged from "Don't even think about it. Go the long way round"
to "Your 4WD will get through so long as you take it slow and sensible, and
remember to fill up on diesel at Jervois Station." Something in the notion of
getting off the highway and traveling slowly enough to see the country took hold
of me. I turned right, out of the human world and into four or five days of
[Above] Kendall makes a request. In the backyard of Mark and Jan
O'Connor's house in Canberra soon after returning from the Games. (Photo by
Patricia Baillie, Year)
In time we came to better-watered country. Here there were vast herds of
free-range cattle that would block the road twice a day as they straggled from
their midday shade spots to their morning and evening drinking spots. We got
fuel at one cattle station on flat featureless plains that was protected by vast
earthworks, like the coast of Holland, against the thirty-year floods. At last
bitumen re-appeared. We came to the Queensland outback town of Boulia, which
lives by trading on creepy stories of the Min-Min lights that follow travelers
in that region.
||By dusk the road had
already deteriorated to a dirt track when I was flagged down by two cars full of
rough-looking Aboriginal men. I was nervous of stopping; but travelers on these
remote roads have to be rescued, and indeed one of their Holdens had broken
down. Their improvised tow-rope wasn't good enough for the other vehicle to pull
it as far as Alice, so they promptly "botted" my tow-rope and a quarter of my
water. They even asked to check over my food supplies, and requested various
items; but a large bag of muesli was rejected with contempt. "Got any real food,
mate? Tins of meat?" Finally they generously offered me "$20 for the pup, mate".
I told them Kendall was not for sale, and pushed
After Boulia there was another long lonely drive through deserted country
towards Roma. After an all night drive I finally arrived at dawn in Redcliffe
(just North of Brisbane) and parked outside my mother-in-law's house. My wife,
who had flown there to meet me, came out and led me in for a breakfast. By lunch
that day I was shadowing the torch through Redcliffe, then doing an ABC
interview, and following it North up the highway towards Cairns.
I began to fall into the torch's routine. Each individual torch had a
canister that burnt just long enough for the half-kilometre run. The next
runner's torch would then be lit by it. If torches blew out, as sometimes
happened several times a day, they would be re-lit from a miner's lantern
carried in a support vehicle (and supposedly a true apostolic descendant of the
original flame that had been lit in Greece earlier that year). Twice a day
(lunchtime and evening) the Flame stopped in a town, and the torch lit a
cauldron which blazed while the mayor made a speech (absolutely and utterly the
same speech every time - 200 times in 100 days) then a new torch was lit, and on
it went. At night the last torch lit a new miner's lamp - which next morning lit
a fresh torch ...
But there was a surprise as I headed North. Near Bundaberg I took a call from
NSW National Parks. They had had a tragedy. Some of their people, carrying out a
hazard - reduction burn in Kuringai Chase National Park in Sydney, had been
burned to death. They had never lost any of their people that way before. They
were having a memorial service in St Andrews Cathedral, and wanted me to read a
poem at it. They would pay for the plane fare. So poor Kendall suffered the
horror of being put into the RSPCA kennel in Bundaberg. He was appalled. His
look said, "Imagine it. Me! Locked up next to dogs that bark for no reason!" I
flew back to Sydney.
I had warned National Parks that the only coat I had was buried under a mound
of supplies and bound to look scruffy. "Don't worry," they said, "things will
probably be a bit informal." Not so. The funeral turned out to be on TV, and I
was reading, in my rumpled clothes, between the Premier and the Governor
General. It was something of a relief to fly back to my van in Bundaberg -
except that by now the Flame was way ahead of me and approaching Cairns.
By now Kendall and I had fallen into a rhythm, and most of my uncertainties
about the wisdom of taking a dog on such a demanding public expedition were
over. Most nights we slept together in the 'van'. Of course all accommodation
was long booked out for each town's "Olympic night", so I would simply park
between two houses in a quiet street (allowing each householder, if they
noticed, to imagine it was their neighbor that had a visitor) and move on in the
I was doing regular interviews for ABC Radio National's breakfast program. It
was a strangely intimate relationship with unseen frantically busy people on the
other end of a telephone line. It called for adaptability, intuition, and quick
reflexes. In Townsville, I thought I knew how that morning's interview would go.
Instead they said, two minutes before we were to go live, "We've just heard
Judith Wright has died. Would you be able to talk about her life?". There was
barely time to grab a copy of an anthology I had edited called Two Centuries
of Australian Poetry, speed-read what its biography of Judith said, and turn
its written English into something sufficiently "oral" yet funerary.
In Cairns the Flame took wings and flew away to the North and West. It was
time for me to turn around and drive about 2000 kilometres south to the English
teachers' conference in Brisbane. Four days of staying in luxury at the Grand
Chancellor Hotel would have been a welcome chance to build up my stock of
Olympic poems, but it turned out the teachers planned to work me hard. I had a
lecture or reading to prepare and deliver each day and, though it was
exhilarating, by the end I felt more drained than replenished.
By now, though, prompted by the demands of interviewers, I had a kind of
celebratory series of poems about the torch relay. When integrated into a single
longish poem it went as follows:
Fanned by the flail of Pindar's tongue
The last three lines comment on how the modern, like the ancient, Olympics
provide an outlet for competitive emotions that might otherwise lead to war. In
interviews I often argued that this was the best defence of the vast resources
the modern world spends on the Olympics. I sometimes quoted Pindar's line:
"Respect your enemy for what he does whole-heartedly and well". (Of course in
Pindar's day your enemy might well have sacked your city and enslaved your
parents in the interval since the last Olympic Games. Respecting his athletic
skills might be a truly Olympian feat of sportsmanship, unknown to most modern
from Olympia's dry creeks it
past empires, swift as signal-fire from Troy.
Next it took wing, in
a slipstream's howl,
approaching the Top End
of the great scorched
over the slow arrows of the people smugglers
glued to ocean's
dark plate, arriving
where dawn is a curve of primal white
so distant it
The Last Land was waiting, a saucer in darkness;
fire-glow lit by a screaming torch of parrots.
over the dragon-breath
where desert peoples winnow grass seeds,
that perfect democracy whose each citizen
is a Local Member.
the flame is down.
It runs swift as bushfires
past dry hiss of
that whispers its runners trespass here
Yet runs on in
triumph, borne by those who have sworn
that honor will not out-run
Now the flame runs South
through the blood-heat places
firm-fleshed human dries like a jellyfish,
and the bicycling lizard gets up,
on its blur of legs
outrunning the bare red earth.
south, past cool morning interludes
of parrot song and gully chortle
any in Australia's winter,
further south than Ulysses dreamed could
South to Melbourne, that furthest city of Greeks,
and up to Sydney,
that stunning womb of harbor.
The feather-trousered lorikeet, a
punk colors to the soles of his feet
briefly amazed, in this land of rainbows
where the full moon has come to
And a voice beats out
in the panting heat,
in restless scud of
the thudding heels:
"No need now to be Greek;
we are all Earth's children;
our huge future wars
will be personal, and bloodless."
Sport, of course, is an issue on which Australians are deeply divided.
Australia has more than its share of sports fanatics, yet more people left
Sydney for the Olympic period than arrived. Perhaps not all would have endorsed
Barry Humphries' definition of sport as "a loathsome and dangerous occupation";
yet my observation is that a good 30% of Australians wanted nothing to do with
the Olympic Games. Indeed even Premier Bob Carr, the man ultimately in charge of
the Games, made no attempt to pretend he cared about sport. Perhaps it was a
sign of the electorate's maturity that he did not need to. Of course there have
always been folk who are passionately anti-sport. And despite the vast cultural
meaning the Greeks invested in the ancient Olympics, the Oxford Classical
Companion itself sourly remarks that it is something of a mystery how Pindar
managed to make great poetry "from the monotonous and unpromising material of
I was sometimes tempted to agree. Sports journalists would ring me up to say
that someone I had never heard of (often from the journalist's home country) had
just won the 200 metres something-or-other, and had I written my poem about it
yet? "Was there something particularly interesting about the event?" I would
enquire. "Well yes," one journalist replied indignantly, "So-and-so won it!" In
such cases, where the only thing interesting about the event seemed to be that
the winner won (!), I would politely reply that if I did get inspired I would
let them know. In fact I was facing a huge problem. How to write poetry about
athletes whom I was not allowed to meet, and of whose personalities I was mostly
ignorant? Without such personal knowledge, it was hard to attach any larger
meaning to their defeats and triumphs.
Now it was time for another vast drive, to meet the Flame again at Port
Augusta in South Australia. The mayor of Port Augusta, Joy Baluchi, was famous
for her plain-spokenness. I hoped idly that she might defy SOCOG and depart from
the prepared speech, but no, I found I had risen at dawn to hear the same old
boiler-plate. (I would love to know what SOCOG did to enforce such obedience to
their script. It is no easy matter to frighten 200 mayors out of deciding to
'say a few words' of their own.)
[Above] Mark and Jan O'Connor (on
the right) with their host in Sydney, Patricia Ravicoli, plus her dogs. (Photo
by Paolo Totaro, 2005)
Adelaide was next, before long the Flame was down south in Victoria, and it
was now the coldest part of winter. Quite often, though, there were friends to
stay with. It didn't matter whether these were "dog people" or not. In every
case but one Kendall managed to charm his way inside, and ended up sleeping in
the same room I did. Usually around 9 p.m. he would begin plucking my elbow with
his paw: "Where's my bed. I need to know." Once shown where we were to sleep, he
As the flame moved North into NSW we also stayed with Les and Val Murray, who
were similarly charmed by Kendall. "But our farm isn't good for woofers," Les
said sadly. "They don't last. The last one's education only got as far as What
Happens when you Dig up a Sleeping Snake in August."
[Above] Kendall, on knee, faces the camera.
(Photo by David Boehm, 2000)
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade arranged a press conference for
me, at which I was exposed to the full force of the international media, many of
whom had only just arrived in Australia. Many of the press interviews that
resulted were very interesting. They are available on my website.
||Kendall even featured in
dispatches. Interviewers sometimes asked how "the Olympic dog" was handling the
pressure. Once in Sydney I was being interviewed by a very low-brow TV program
at Channel 7, and was wondering if I had enough poems and comments that would
suit their audience.
So I took Kendall with me, and sat him on my knee in front of the camera. Of
course he stole the scene, with his eager eyes and nose darting hither and
thither, intercepting all questions. Afterwards the producer told me he ought to
have his own chat show!
And finally we followed the Olympic Flame to Sydney. Patrizia Ravicoli and
fellow poet Paolo Totaro generously turned over their ground-floor flat to me
and Kendall (plus my wife Jan when she could get away from her job in Canberra).
The media pressure increased.
By the time the Games began in September most of my grant money had gone on
living, travelling and motor expenses. I could afford only a handful of the very
expensive Olympic tickets that remained. I was trying to avoid criticizing SOCOG
for their failure to support me, but inevitably the questions focused on this
problem. I had already missed the Opening Ceremony, for which the tickets cost
nearly a thousand dollars, and SOCOG was refusing to allow me complimentary
tickets on the grounds that I was "not a journalist" - even though there were
large empty areas in the stands reserved for journalists. I missed most of the
first half of the Games, and also had no access to athletes or officials. It did
look as though my hopes of observing the Games would be crippled, or that I
would see them only on TV.
But now a groundswell of support began to solve the problem. DFAT found me
some complimentary tickets. People who had heard me interviewed mailed me
tickets. The controversial Vet, Tom Lonsdale, came to my aid, as did diplomats,
federal and state politicians from both major parties, and personal friends,
until by the second half of the Games I began to have an erratic but fairly
representative selection of events to attend.
And poems began to result. One came out of watching the men's shot-put, which
was won by the aptly named Arsi Harju of Finland:
THE OLYMPIC IDEAL
for Arsi Harju of Finland, men's shotput champion, 2000 Games.
SOCOG were inflexible, but by now the international media were onto the
story. The novelist and journalist Geraldine Brookes, who interviewed me for the
Wall Street Journal, was indignant: 'It would have cost them nothing to
throw you one of these', she said, gesturing to the media pass round her neck
and to the hundreds of unfilled seats in the media section of the stands.
The stringy triathletes stream past, I stay fixed
as a haggis-bellied
hugs a pudding-sized lump of lead
to his ear; his buttocks
watermelons yoked in a sack
of reddish tights; he props
one-legged like a
wavers, bizarrely off-balance, then
with the gesture of one
resolving at last
to fling away his cell-phone
risks all in a beefy ballet-twirl.
Thus stout fellows once
crashed rocks on the shields of besiegers.
The next pub-bellied beefcake spins
like a pot-bellied toddler
arrested pas de seul - ends
with one leg at dog-pissing angle
what he's just thrown
(the throw too at low-pissing angle)
second, and in sad slow-mo
with a sailor's despairing wave
Next our countryman throws
better than those before; crowd roars;
all seems less silly.
But now Arsi hugs to his stubbled cheek
a dense chunk of earth's
tensed for his famous chook-hop and spin,
he cocks a leg in direction of throw,
then slips through a sideways
to a stooped-emu stride
and a swift pas-de-rhino
- from which a straight piston-thrust
sends the ball on its grass-smashing
Neat men in suits run up
to take possession of his valued work.
Gumblies, farewell. It's over.
Ers Burglar, we may never meet again.
And Arsi Harju strides off,
a bouquet of Aussie wildflowers
lost in his
Her piece, which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, was
headlined: The Olympic Games Will Be Recorded in 'Ode to Ian Thorpe' and Other
Her article of 27th September 2000, 4 days before the end of the Games,
brought immediate results. About the time it hit the streets in New York my
mobile phone rang in Homebush. It was IOC President Samaranch's office. How many
tickets could I use? SOCOG's opposition - perhaps based on fear of upsetting the
IOC - had been outflanked. I found myself with multiple tickets to the closing
Unfortunately, the IOC's help came too late to overturn SOCOG's ban on the
access, such as journalists had, to the Olympic Village. I had no direct contact
whatever with any of the athletes. The main problems left were to ration the
late night interviews with US and British and Canadian media, launch my
Collected Poems (The Olive Tree) which came out during the Games, and get
to as many of the simultaneous events as possible - and get some poems written.
[Above] The troop carrier/mobile
bedroom's last excursion (to Mount Jagungal, post Olympics in 2000) before being
re-sold. Note the tinted windows and the square-shaped open rear-door. (Photo by
Michael Shihof, 2000)
Then followed the Paralympic Games. No such problems there. The organisers
were eager for me to attend. I liked the Paralympics. One memory is watching the
US and Australian women's singles wheelchair-tennis champions greet each other
before a closely-matched knockout game. Instead of the perfunctory hand-shakes
of the Olympic tennis stars, they embraced and kissed before - and after - the
match. They clearly regarded each other less as representatives of their two
nations, than as members of a larger nation.
I reflected a lot on this. Most sports are zero-sum games. What the winners
gain is stripped from the losers, so that the results for which they strive
spread exaltation and depression equally among the fans, with no overall gain.
Sport, like poetry, makes nothing happen - even if it turns over enough money to
make executives wish to tamper. Yet the very fact that we are not quite serious
about sport gives a poet one important freedom: to experiment with a range of
styles and tones, including the overtly populist.
Interviews with ABC radio were almost daily during the Games, and I always
needed something new or unusual for them - often a mix of sidelights, anecdotes,
and a poem of my own to finish on. Radio interviews took a lot of time, and
preparation, but I never grudged that. They were an important part of "raising
the profile of poetry", as I had promised to do in my application for the grant.
The ABC were congenial but demanding interviewers. They needed highbrow material
but presented in an easy colloquial manner, with anecdotes and epigrams. You had
to follow the rules of conversation, being willing to change tack in an instant
to stay in rapport with your interlocutor, and be on top of the information
without ever seeming to lecture. Plus a good fund of interesting ideas, facts,
and true stories. I was worried when asked to appear on one of commercial TV's
most populist programs. I knew they would want something celebratory but
populist, a poem that everyone would get. I dug deep and offered them:
Ah Mr Thorpe, you've done it again!
By contrast, the victory of the Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman in the 400
metres was serious national business, and demanded a different tone. Her chief
rival Marie-Jose Perec of France had cracked under the pressures of expectation.
She fled the Olympic Games after suffering what seemed like a breakdown. For
Freeman, who carried the hopes of Aboriginal Australia, the pressures were even
Those freakish feet churning
from the losers to a tumble-turn
like a seal's prop-and-balk;
smooth long reach
with a sharkish jerk at the end;
and after, your hooded
like a leopard at prey
with only a shy inner joy.
You can touch the wet wall
of a chlorinated pool
a long finger's-grope
ahead of the world.
That makes us proud
and some of them sad
can't, for my wit, say why.
Sure, we train more swimmers than Chad.
Sure, you'd make a good lifesaver
. . .
Yet once the crowd get rabid
in time to your six-beat kick,
as proud as
if we could do it ourselves,
(since you are/we are "Australia")
and when at the end you pull free
from your fellow eels,
I half find
'Glory, Thorpy, glory'.
Half an hour after her victory, which came late in the evening, I phoned
Radio National's Breakfast program to say I thought I had an 'Ode to Cathy
Freeman' coming on. With some trepidation, I was booked to read it on national
radio just after the 8am news next morning. After all, I told myself, skilled
journalists are expected to produce their finest at an hour or two's notice, so
why should a poet need the Horatian nine years to get a poem right?
Back home I repented of that rashness. There were two or three different
poems fighting their way through my head, and it was not till 2am that I had
something to read next morning. It began:
COMING HOME STRONG
for Cathy Freeman, winner of the 400m at the Sydney Games, 25/9/2000
Unlike the sports commentators, who tell you the mechanics of how an athlete
wins, I had concentrated on what winning and losing mean.
Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child
among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
came from behind.
Our roar rose till it seemed
sheer decibels must push you clear.
Our own corroboree-striped Phantom,
ghost who runs in
- to a lap of honor with a double flag.
Your face was a book
of relief and awe that you'd won
that you hadn't
Then the pain of great tears about to start.
So tense you could scarcely see your fans
- such sacks of their
you'd carried. So many
had punted their hearts on you.
Once you laid down that load
you knew how heavy it was
and how lonely
you still could be
-but Cathy, only if you choose.
You have entered Dawn Fraserdom. Beware!
Whatever befalls, you can't hide
from our love!
Happiness includes trust
in others - that gold-medal smile
our huge roar was harmless.
May some day the ghost who runs
run for pure joy! ...
A few days later I repeated the risky maneuver of writing a poem overnight,
this time about the end-of-Olympics fireworks in Sydney Harbour, and read it on
Radio National the next morning.
The Olympics was a rushed and sleepless time for me. I had more media
attention in a fortnight than a poet would normally expect in a lifetime - and
there were moments when I felt I was under more pressure than Perec or Freeman.
It was hard to finish poems under such media scrutiny, while retaining a
properly professional relationship to the various Olympic bodies - neither
antagonised nor duchessed by them. It was also very hard to find enough time for
writing in the short period of the Games.
I felt encouraged when the 'Breakfast' program got in touch to say they had
had such enormous response to "the Cathy poem" that they were sending me an
"anthology" of the compliments. Knowing how busy they were, I took this as a
huge compliment. One listener had written:
I found myself in the unaccustomed state of being moved to tears as
Another email, signed by Sandy McCutcheon, said simply: "Mark your Cathy poem
is a superb piece of work. Gold medal in Poetics to Mark O'Connor".
drove to work this morning - the reason being Mark O'Connor's
reading of his remarkable 'poem-in-progress' on Cathy Freeman and
triumph of the night before.
I had feared before the Olympics that I might damage my reputation by turning
out ephemeral pieces. I don't think that was the case; and even the often
envious Australian poetry scene seemed silent or acquiescent at the time.
[Above] Mark O'Connor observing an athlete at the Australian Academy
of Sport in Canberra. ("Nearest thing to a real Olympic athlete I could get
close to") (Photo by Phil Carrick, 2000)
Hence in 2002 I went to Greece, and backed by a letter from Australia's
Minister for Arts and Sport (happy combination!) secured the help of the
Australian Embassy. The Ambassador and his Cultural Counselor set up contacts
and took me round to meet the top Greek bureaucrats responsible for planning the
cultural side of the Athens 2004 Olympics. Both the diplomats and I believed
that they were genuinely interested (even though there had been a change of
government in Greece, and the idea of appointing a Greek Olympic poet now seemed
new to the bureaucrats).
||I hope that in future other
Olympic countries will appoint Olympic poets of their own. This will at worst
produce mere occasional verse - and the odd bard who cracks under the media
pressure. At best it may produce important works, and an important proof of the
continuing relevance of poetry. The still small voice of the individual poet may
counter the bland triumphalism of the Olympic media - and may find a human
meaning in this most bizarre of human activities: the solemn playing of
pointless yet (for some of us) deeply satisfying games.
If the Olympic poet idea gets established, I hope there will eventually be a
sort of emeritus bench of former Olympic poets who are invited - without fanfare
- to attend subsequent Olympics. Granted the insane rush with which one's first
Olympic Games goes past, I think most poets would become much more productive on
a second or third visit to that world.
For me, involvement with the "Olympic poet" idea did not end in 2000. Having
received personal benefit from it, I felt a duty to pass on the opportunity to
I also spoke at a conference on Greek culture at Olympia. There, on the site
of the ancient Games, I put the case for Greece seizing the honor of appointing
"the first truly official Olympic poet of the modern era".
After giving this paper I was offered contacts in the Greek media who wanted
to publicise the idea. However I accepted advice from the Australian Embassy
that it was best not to go public. "Let the bureaucrats produce the idea in
their own time, and as if it was their own" was the advice. It may have been
good advice, but in practice it failed.
Somehow nothing came of all these promising initiatives. From time to time,
after returning to Australia, I phoned Greece to find how the idea was going.
Each time it seemed that the bureaucrats had been playing musical chairs, and
the person I had last spoken to "doesn't work here any more". I would try to
re-explain the concept in a mixture of bad Greek and simple English, but I found
myself being treated like an eccentric distant voice proposing an idea no one
had ever heard of.
I must admit I became so depressed by this that I have scarcely attempted to
offer the idea to the Chinese for the 2008 Games - in part because I don't know
with whom to begin, and in part because the cultural conditions seem less
propitious than in Greece.
I think the prospects are much brighter in Britain for the 2012 Games.
Recently the Melbourne-based businessman and poetry lover Paul Riggs wrote to
the British Olympic Cultural committee a letter which I believe is a model for
how to approach such bodies. In fact I understand there is considerable interest
in the idea in British literary circles. One straw in the wind may be the recent
appearance of the British poet David Fine in Australia on an Arts Council Grant.
He was funded to follow the Cricket Test Matches (and the Barmy Army) around
Australia and write poetry about the Ashes. (I must say I think he picked the
right sport. Where many Olympic events are over in a couple of minutes, a test
match gives you four or five days, and you can often see a batsman's century or
a side's collapse coming an hour or two in advance.) Technology had moved on in
years. David Fine was able to cut down on time spent with the media by simply
updating his website every night (he is an accomplished blogger) and posting his
latest poems and comments there. Unfortunately, David, who is a passionate
England fan, suffered much pain in his team's humiliation, returning home just
before it began to win the One-Day series!
As for my role as 'the unofficial Olympic poet', I feel I have done
everything necessary to bring the idea to the notice of the right cultural
authorities in Britain, and that its success hereafter will depend on the idea
finding British champions. Once one country has had a fully official, IOC
supported, "Olympic poet" who performs well, I believe the custom will soon be
consolidated and will be followed by most future Olympic host-countries. Which,
whatever you think about sport, can't be bad for poetry.
About the Writer Mark
[Above] Photo of Mark
O'Connor by Ron Hood, 2000.
||Mark O'Connor has published
over a dozen collections of poetry, plus a book of essays (Modern Australian
Styles, Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, 1982) and a book of
environmental prose This Tired Brown Land (Duffy and Snellgrove, 1998).
Numerous talks include a series of 6 talks on the ABC Science Show in 1985. An
A.B.C. TV documentary on O'Connor's poems about the Barrier Reef was first
broadcast on A Big Country in 1983. In 2000 he was given a grant from the
Australia Council to write poetry about the 2000 Olympic Games and 'remote'
regions of Australia. Mark graduated from Melbourne University with Honours in
English and Classics and taught English Literature at the University of Western
Australia and the Australian National University. The recipient of many prizes
and awards, O'Connor has taught and read his poetry in Britain, Europe, Russia,
India, China and the USA. Some of his books include, The Olive Tree:
Collected Poems (Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 2001), Two Centuries of
Australian Poetry (editor/poetry anthology, Oxford University Press, 1988,
reprinted 6 times). His play Planting the Dunk Botanic Gardens is touring
Australia, and will go to Edinburgh in August
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Thylazine No.12 (June,
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