Olympics put Australia on world stage

by By Lyn Spillman and Russell Faeges

American television is transmitting many images of koalas, kangaroos and the Sydney Opera House as the Olympics Games in Sydney unfold. But what lies behind these symbols of Australia, and how do Australians really see themselves as they host the 2000 Olympics and briefly draw the world’s attention?p. The exotic image of Australia obscures more than it conveys about the society inhabited by real Australians. The country shares a lot with the United States—continental size, British settlement, significant immigration, a modern economy, fast food, big cities, the English language and stable democracy, to name but a few similarities. But the shared qualities can be misinterpreted and the differences forgotten. Noticing the strange fauna helps label the country, but it distracts from more subtle puzzles, and it doesn’t tell you what Australians really care about.p. There’s no doubt that Australians really care about sports. The most popular sports—like rugby, cricket, and the home-grown Australian rules football—are unfamiliar to most Americans, but any and all sports are important to national identity.p. Much more than elsewhere, Australians see sport as representing their place in the world. During their bicentenary celebrations in 1988, Australians touted their “SPORT ’88” program as allowing sports administrators to show their capabilities to “the rest of the world” (regardless of whether other countries really paid any attention). With attention focused on the Olympics, Australians will expect that something of their place in the world really will be represented on TVs across the globe.p. Australians also see that contribution in their regional geopolitical role (for instance, in their recent United Nations peacekeeping mission in East Timor), their role in transnational organizations, and in their lively traditions in the arts and sciences as well as sports, but there’s no doubt the Olympics present an unparalleled opportunity on the world stage. Olympic medals will be important—and Australians intend to win more medals per citizen than any other country—but the simple fact of holding the Olympics could mean more to national identity than Atlanta or Los Angeles meant to Americans.p. Superficial political similarities between the United States and Australia also should be questioned. Yes, Australia’s two-party democracy is long-lasting and stable, and, just like the United States, Australia has a federal system embracing different states. (The Centenary of Federation -marking the joining of the states to form Australia-will be commemorated next year.)p. But there’s a real puzzle in Australian political institutions and attitudes for Americans imbued with the glory of their democratic innovations and the heroism of the Revolutionary War (celebrated this year in “The Patriot,” which, ironically, starred two Australians). Many Australians have long attributed their stable democracy to their British connections, and indeed they recently voted in favor of retaining their vestigial constitutional ties with Britain and against becoming a republic—the form of government Americans chose to fight for in 1776.p. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was one of the winning lines of argument against becoming a republic. On the other hand, many Australians preferred the status quo because the new constitution proposed for the Australian Republic was not democratic enough. On either count, the attachment to democracy means something different to Australians than Americans might expect.p. Americans might also be surprised, given the interminable flow of wildlife documentaries coming from Australia, that Australia is more urbanized—and suburbanized -than the United States. In fact, Australians were city-dwellers long before Americans were leaving small towns for the metropolis. The vast majority of Australians know the Outback, the koalas and the kangaroos from the same sources as Americans do-zoos and TV. And in recent years, Australians have emphasized more and more the multicultural diversity and sophistication of their citified population. If you want to connect with contemporary Australians, don’t mention “Crocodile Dundee,” just mention the latest and trendiest wine or restaurant you’ve discovered.p. But don’t bother mentioning a Sydney restaurant to a Melbourne resident, or vice versa, unless you’re prepared to meet some resistance. As united as Australians might appear from a distance, there are some limits to that unity. The longstanding rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne for the claim to being Australia’s premier city is only the mildest of the social differences worth knowing about to really understand Australians. The last chapter of Australia’s scandalous oppression of the continent’s indigenous population has yet to be written, and is a far more visible issue than the treatment of Native Americans here.p. Other deep-seated political and cultural differences feed tensions and conflict between “old Australians”—the British-descended and oriented Australians whose families migrated before World War II—and those committed to recognizing the cultural diversity that has come with immigration from other areas, especially South and East Asia. And Australia’s long commitment to “a fair go” for workers, although challenged by neoliberal economics, supports class-based political debates that would shock most Americans as appeals to “class-warfare.”p. Celebrity historian Manning Clark, introducing Australia’s 1988 Bicentenary Commemoration, said: “I believe we Australians can make a contribution to the conversation of humanity.” There’s a lot of evidence to confirm that many Australians share this view, and that the Sydney Olympics is seen in Australia as an important occasion of global recognition. Americans enjoying the Olympic coverage will surely be focused on their own chances for gold, but there in the background is an Australia that is both similar to and different from the United States. In that backdrop, the significant things to notice will not be koalas, or kangaroos, but the differing interpretations of shared experiences like democracy, diversity and global participation.p. Lyn Spillman and Russell Faeges are sociologists at the University of Notre Dame. Spillman, a native of Perth, Australia, is the author of “Nation and Commemoration: Creating National Identities in the United States and Australia” (Cambridge University Press, 1997.)p. South Bend Tribune September 24, 2000

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