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The Olympics united us - but to what purpose?
We can do anything, but what do we want to do?

We've staged the "best ever" Olympics - which proves, say our political leaders, that Australia can do anything it wants. So where to now? .Our leaders are less than clear.

The so successful Games.

To the whole world, Olympics supremo Samaranch proclaimed our Games "the best ever". Prime Minister Howard extolled them the moment Parliament resumed. Opposition leader Beazley followed suit. Premier Bob Carr said, " We've shown the world." "A significant turning point," said local MP Bruce Baird. "Simply the best!" shouted the Australian ; a "huge success", the Sydney Morning Herald .

The nation, and Sydney in particular, glowed. "If the Olympics won't pass into the language as a symbol of Australian excellence, then whatever would?" declared veteran journalist, Paul Kelly ( Australian , 4.10.00).

Back to earth in the week following.

Yet only days after the Games closed, the euphoria was punctured:
  • The Aussie dollar fell to a record 53c low against the US greenback.

  • Currency traders said the "Olympic Effect" predicted to boost our dollar had fizzled.

  • Job ads took their worst plunge in 25 years.

  • Business confidence slumped to the lowest level since 1996 (State Chamber of Commerce).

  • Scientists and academics compared lavish funding of athletics with low research funding - muscles before minds.

  • The fitness levels of Australians were shown to be the worst in years.

  • A new Federal formula for funding schools was widely criticised as favouring rich private schools over public schools.

  • A Federal grant of $700 million over seven years to combat salinity was condemned as totally inadequate.

  • Olympics Minister Knight by snubbing a top organiser, Sandy Hollway, incurred public wrath, damping the general goodwill and thereby foolishly "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory".

Sporting country, not Knowledge country.

Of all assaults on the Olympics euphoria, none grabbed the headlines more than the open letter by eminent scientists, academics and business heads urging greater investment in research and development ( SMH , 30.10.00). Who could fault their argument?.

".if Australia is to sustain growth, increase the number of jobs and improve living standards, we have to develop and implement urgently an innovation action plan to underpin growth in existing and emerging industries and be a 'knowledge-based society'."

".nations such as the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany and France have significantly increased their levels of national investment in research and development."

".[likewise] smaller countries such as Singapore, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Israel and Denmark, [while] Ireland has revolutionised its economy through educational and research investment."

Their theme was taken up widely. For example: "While Australia pampered its elite athletes, it neglected its elite scientists and mathematicians, the people who hold the key to the country's future economic prosperity. Education is the critical issue facing the nation. Overall education spending in Australia peaked in 1993-94 and has since declined." (Adele Horin, SMH , 2.10.00).

"If the success of the Sydney Olympics strengthens the financial base of sport in Australia, that is good. But it will be even better if it prompts attention to the need for more - and more intelligent - spending on scientific and technological research and development" (Editorial, SMH , 4.10.00).

But can we afford both?

The question facing politicians and all Australians in this post-Olympics period is: Can Australia afford to fund lavishly its elite sports AND hugely increase its lagging scientific and educational spending?

Estimates vary, but nearly $8 billion seems to have been needed to stage the Olympics - with more than half paid by taxpayers, according to former NSW Auditor-General Tony Harris (SMH, 30.9.00).

Startlingly, a Herald editorial spoke of taxpayers spending $40 million to $50 million over four years for each gold medal won by Australia. Which means that each gold medal would "buy Australia 200 world class professors, finance a new division of the CSIRO, or provide annual budgets for two world-class research facilities", says a commentator (SMH, 2.10.00).

Question: Should we spend as lavishly on the next and other Olympics to which we will send our team abroad? After all, many of the things we justly claim credit for have arisen from the presence of the Games in Sydney and will not be visible when our team travels overseas.

Six great achievements. Because the Games were in Sydney we were able to exhibit to the world some great achievements:
  • Skills triumph. Our sporting skills, yes, but also skills in engineering, technology, communications, finance, marketing, transport, conservation, management - all adding up to that proud claim, "Australia can do anything!"

  • Public sector triumph. These were the "public sector Games", said Premier Bob Carr, and that destroys the fiction that only the private sector can deliver efficiency. An effective modern economy needs the partnership of both a healthy public sector and healthy private sector.

  • Friendly Games triumph . So many plaudits from visitors: Australians are so friendly, so helpful - oh, yes, madly pro-Aussie of course, patriotic and sport-crazy, but not offensively nationalistic. (Also, nice to one another, and often talkative on the buses and trains.)

  • Reconciliation triumph . The Cathy Freeman phenomenon led the way - her "400 metres for reconciliation", not to mention her lighting of the cauldron - but more widely there was deference to Aboriginal culture in the ceremonies.Steps towards reconciliation seen as working towards national unity.

  • Volunteers triumph. An incredible 55,000 of them (plus 15,000 for the Paralympics). Samaranch saw them as ".with the athletes, the most important part of these Olympics". Carr went even further: they have stolen the limelight, he said. And the Herald further still: "The volunteer army has been hailed as the driving force behind the success of the Games by local and international commentators alike" (5.10.00)

  • Sydney triumph. Though Carr spoke generously of the Olympics benefiting all of Australia (which is true) there can be little doubt that the main beneficiary will be Sydney. Carr himself has moved quickly to advertise to the world Sydney's economic and tourism attractions

A future that honours Australia's Olympic achievement

So much achieved! And so much potential for future achievement!

Our national self-esteem has grown, and with it the conviction that "we can do anything". But do what?

Must we - dare we - leave the precious future to the politicians? Are they up to thinking beyond the limits of narrow party advantage at the next election? John Howard : We'll turn the focus to "national infrastructure and education". Kim Beazley : We'll focus on creating the "knowledge nation".

Fair enough, predictable enough. But not inspiring. Not a vision to excite Australians whose Olympian enthusiasm has shown a hunger for national meaning that rises high above party bickering.

Wot, no statesmanlike call for a great national enterprise?

No wonder several wise commentators have deplored a great opportunity missed in those euphoric early days following the Olympics.

Nothing said, even to equal Ben Chifley's 1949 Snowy Scheme announcement. Yet more is needed than a specific scheme like that - more than a Very Fast Train, or Alice-to-Darwin railway, or extensive Landcare initiative, desirable though they would be.

Australia is crying out for an Australia-wide purpose that will unify us and enable us to project internationally and enduringly, as the Olympics enabled us to project briefly.What could it be?

Stewardship of this fragile continent.

A recent United Nations visitor to Australia, Maurice Strong, has hinted at an inspiring role our nation-continent could embark upon in the troubled Third Millennium.

Australia, he said, should see itself as "an environmental super-power", the only island constituting an entire continent.home to a huge assemblage of plants and animals found nowhere else on in mineral and biological resources.[with] an important responsibility as the dominant actor in the environmentally sensitive South Pacific" (University of NSW, 11.2.99).

Important responsibility, indeed. The responsibility to reverse the damage done by European settlement in stripping forests, eroding soils, and degrading rivers.

Under an inspiring National Plan we could:
  • Stress science-for-an-arid-continent.

  • Repair our land, water, biodiversity.

  • Favour renewable energy, greenhouse gas reduction, sustainable development.

  • Invite scientists worldwide to visit and share our experiences.

  • Encourage tourists to come, see and learn about the unique island continent, the environmental super-power.

Reaching out thus to the world - more positively than any other nation can - we would make friends everywhere, and this would be Australia's best defence in the turbulent South-east Asia region, as we explain our continent's fragility, our environmental priorities, our reasons for population restraint.

We could then rest secure in a proud national identity and show that we had expanded our Olympic achievements into a comprehensive program of inspiring stewardship of this beautiful, fragile land.

Did you know that.?
  • The first Olympiad is dated at 776 BC; expanded in 472 BC to five days; but in 393 AD stopped by the religiously motivated Christian emperor Theodosius.

  • Contestants in the Greek Games were all male and performed naked; women were forbidden to be present.

  • The Torch Relay was not a Greek custom; it was instituted in 1936 for the Berlin Games to drum up interest throughout Nazi Germany.

  • Founder of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Baron de Coubertin (1863-1937), could nor imagine women playing sport in public - hence, not one women's event in the 1896 Athens Games, and only a trickle of women in the subsequent seven Games.

  • Amateurism was compulsory in the first half century of the Games; its end came after World War II when athletes from communist countries were generously state-supported and so could not be distinguished from "professionals".

  • More than 150 threats against the Sydney Olympics venues were investigated by police, but no explosive devices were found, no terrorist events took place.

  • Only two drug cheats were identified at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but while there were more at the Sydney Games the tough-on-drugs policy succeeded in minimising what was feared might have been an ugly intrusion.

  • Sydney's transport exceeded all expectations: no major breakdown or disruption; Sydney airport handled an astonishing 100 000 departures on the day after the Olympics end.

  • Smaller sports seem to have benefited most spectacularly from the Games, with handball, trampoline, archery and beach volleyball reporting inundation by new members.

  • Though Australia was 4th in the medal tally, it was far ahead of all nations on a per capita basis.

  • The Paralympics runs for 11 days, with 18 sports; 400 athletes are participating from 125 countries, Australia fielding the largest team with 278 athletes. The ABC is the official broadcaster.