By Emeritus Professor David Rowe
First published 18 October 2000
I was there. Remember this statement in future decades when all manner of pretenders will confuse what they saw in their lounge room (on that quaint little box that we used to call "the telly") with what they think they remember seeing at the Stadium Australia that they imagine they attended that not-so-hot September night.
I was the one who got it together to get a ticket for what the whole world was calling "The Cathy Freeman Final". Well, OK, not the whole world, but at least the bit mostly in the West, and mostly Anglophone and affluent, and mostly in what the colonialists used to call 'The Antipodes'. And alright, I'll come clean, the ticket sort of fell into my lap courtesy of someone else who made the running. But at least I was alive to the option.
I didn't just: a) say "Stuff the Games" and go into my domestic/globetrotting shell, or b) just go along and heedlessly savour the pleasure of the Games without carrying a notebook. I was probably the only person in the stadium, apart from the volunteers (many of whom would probably have marshalled crowds at the Nuremberg Rallies if only someone had told them that they were important enough to ask) and the athletes from the poorer countries, who didn't get paid directly for their Olympian labours.
I was the intrepid traveller who had to take "anti-social" (as opposed to that euphemism "public") transport to and from the Games; who had to walk the 2 kilometres from the "convenient" transport hub to the aptly named "Olympic complex"; and who had to negotiate security just so that I could be trapped in a compound with nothing but queues, portaloos, crap memorabilia, corporate "partners" flogging their wares, and temporary crash barriers to impede logical movement.
They didn't have to climb the North Face of the Eiger to their plastic bucket seat 5 rows from the roofline over an hour before the warm up acts - hurdles heats and the pole vault - even took the stage. They didn't have to wait for the next 3 hours while all kinds of weird things unfolded simultaneously before their eyes, so that they couldn't make up their mind whether to watch the discus or the triple jump or the medal ceremony or the flag waving "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!" bellowers or that strange "bushie" bloke in the uncomfortably close adjacent seat drinking rum laced with coffee out of a thermos flask.
They didn't have to train the field glasses on some distant speck in a space suit. Nor did they have to keep checking out the two big screens to get a reasonable view. Or get hit in the eye by the bogong moths diverted from their long journey to a cool summer in the southern mountains by the synthetic home fires of Homebush.
On the other hand, they didn't hear the buzz of excitement when she walked into the stadium with the other 400 metre finalists. Their gaze was directed by Channel Seven's producer and their thoughts banalised by Bruce MacAvaney and his motley cruelties. They might have been a lot closer to the fridge and the toilet, but they couldn't have felt the visceral impact of being stuck in a crowd of strangers coming together for a moment in mostly common and just purpose. They were not able truly to glimpse reconciliation in a flickering flame and a pair of winged heels in a way readily distinguishable from the framed action of a late night pop music video.
They couldn't have known what it was like to share that patch of turf and to take the bracing air of a reclaimed industrial western Sydney wasteland that gives you a rare kind of high. They just took their 'live feed' like chooks in a battery farm, absorbing the piped stimuli that encourages the laying of eggs and the softening up of consumers.
We saw the messiness of an athletics 'meet' that broadcast television can't handle, with all those deeply focused throwing and jumping athletes absorbed in what most of us could, at best, only be polite about. We saw the mobile space suit - however minuscule - with eyes unenhanced by electronics. We felt our own collective power as she ran the opposition down and then - frozen by history - drank deeply of the draught of victory. Cathy waved to us, responded to our cheers on the lap of honour and the dais. Without us, the television audience would have received sounds and images of a moon landing.
I was one of a hundred thousand among billions (or so we'd like to believe). I can trade on the scarcity of the resource of 'being there' in perpetuity. I'll forget that nagging wish to be somewhere else with a decent, comfortable view. I'll play down the memory of that persistent urge to have the whole thing mediated for me, to have someone else tell me what I have witnessed, all wrapped up in a tidy little bundle. I won't mention my dependency on the big screens and my exasperation at the inferiority of my vantage point.
Above all, I will have repressed the memory of a motivation to attend that was never of the moment, but always already directed to the future. The whole time I was there I was somewhere else in space and time, telling an audience still waiting to be born that, yes, I was there.
David Rowe, 'Cathy Freeman: Live at Stadium Australia, 25 September 2000', M/C Reviews, 18 October 2000. [Accessed 15 September 2020].
From the National Library of Australia archive (opens in a new window).