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GUMLEAF GAMES TO THE WORLD STAGE

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SEVEN DAYS IN SPORT: WHY bringing the Olympics back to Australia is a very good-news story for everyone, writes RON REED.

 BRISBANE – the Olympic city! Who would have thought?

 Well, not me – not on Sunday evening, October 10, 1982, as I attempted to shout dinner for the small reporting team I had led through the previous week and a half that it took for the Queensland capital to stage the Commonwealth Games.

 There was almost nowhere to go. Thousands of international visitors were still in town, but the joint was virtually locked and bolted just because it was Sunday night. It was embarrassing, frustrating … and thirsty.

 Eventually we found a Chinese restaurant willing to wheel out some dim sims, fried rice and sweet and sour pork, just as you used to always be able to do any day of the week in almost any bush hamlet, and still can. And that’s what Brisbane was back then – a glorified bush town.

 To be fair, the “gumleaf Games” – as I dubbed them in a newspaper column long before they started – were an enjoyable success because Queenslanders are no different from the rest of Australia when it comes to sport: they love it, think they’re better at it than everywhere else, and make you very welcome if you come to play, watch or just have a good time. Unless you’re the NSW rugby league team, of course.

But the Olympics – the greatest sporting, cultural and social show on earth, even more so than soccer’s World Cup? In backwater Brisbane? That’ll be the day!

 Well, that day is here – or on the way. And I’m pleased for them – as the rest of Australia should be. This is a national good-news story, not a parochial one, just as Sydney was 21 years ago and Melbourne way back in 1956, both of which improved life in the host cities.

Being only a kid at the time, I don’t recall much about the Melbourne Games because I didn’t actually get to see it up close, the most vivid memory being pulled out of bed by my parents in the wee small hours to watch the torch relay come through Creswick, the tiny bush town where we lived. But it was all still an introduction to the concept of the wider world.

By 2000, that had, naturally, changed drastically. I had already attended four summer Olympics (and one winter) in person to write about them – with another four to come – and was a fully paid-up fan of the movement, although hopefully not so naïve and wide-eyed as to fail to recognise its many problems and excesses.

As I explain in my recent book, WAR GAMES  in a chapter titled Why The Olympics Matter, I had become convinced that for all the political posturing, the commercial corruption, the entitled arrogance, the never-ending issues with drugs, the win-at-all-costs attitudes, the avarice, the cynicism and the one upmanship, the positives of friendship, goodwill, pride , endeavour and inspiration were more worthy of focus.

I moved to Sydney 17 months before that Games and witnessed how that unhumble city and its self-important media embraced the opportunity it had been given to enhance its own, and Australia’s, status in the world around it, so successfully that it was officially congratulated by the International Olympic Committee for having presented the best version yet of the greatest show on earth.

It was a priceless profit in all sorts of ways.

There is no reason why that won’t be the case again, and I hope I am still around to see it – living through three “home” Olympic Games is something very few people have had the chance to do, anywhere.

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The United States have hosted four in three different cities but it took 92 years, Germany three in two cities across 56 years and England three (all in London) between 1908 and 2012. Australia’s three will have spanned 76 years, so some of us might just fit them all in, touch wood.

It is worth remembering that Australia is one of only two countries, Greece the other, that has attended every one of the modern Olympics since the first in Athens in 1896, so the Olympics and us have been good for each other.

Australians always tune in with impressively committed enthusiasm – it’s an accurate reflection of how deeply sport influences the national identity, mentality and culture – but the timing of Queensland’s coup has added an extra element of interest to the unfolding fortnight in Tokyo. Regardless of how many medals we bring home, a sense of ownership – if only symbolic at this stage – has been born.

I would have liked to have been in Japan to participate again in the Olympic experience, which has been perhaps the single most rewarding and interesting aspect of an adult life devoted almost entirely to immersing myself in sport for a living.

I had intended to be, not only for the Games themselves but because the original day of the closing ceremony was to have been August 9, 2020, the 75th anniversary – to the day – of the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki, which brought an abrupt and ugly end to the second world war.

My late father, Bill Reed, was one of 24 Australian prisoners of war who miraculously survived that horrific blast, when many tens of thousands did not, and as I also explain in the War Games book, this seemed to be an irresistible opportunity to pay final tribute to him while simultaneously bringing the curtain down on my own professional life.

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Alas, the Games were put off for a year and by the time they did hove into view again the attraction of being there had faded in direct proportion to the risk involved with the pandemic still in full swing, and also because of the many restrictions the Japanese authorities were putting in place that were guaranteed to make the Olympic experience far less enjoyable than usual.

Not surprisingly, I have mixed feelings about it now that the opening ceremony has arrived and the time-honoured edict “let the Games begin” has rung out, but the only real regret is that these circumstances have become so regrettable. I just hope they pull it off successfully with a minimum of disruption.

Having attended the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998, I have no doubt the Australian contingent will be made very welcome by the Japanese.

This is partly because of a strong competitive rivalry that surfaces every now and then, perhaps most notably in soccer, and which may or may not be linked to the fact that the first contest of these Games was a softball match between the hosts and the girls in green and gold.

But it also dates back to Tokyo’s first Olympics in 1964, just a relatively short 19 years after the two nations had been at each other’s throats with devastating consequences, and with plenty of ill-feeling still prevalent in Australia.

Despite that, Australia sent more athletes to that Games than any previous one – between 234 and 250, depending on which archive you read – and the goodwill in both directions couldn’t have been any more sincere, according to prominent participants such as legendary swimmer Dawn Fraser and basketball godfather Lindsay Gaze when I interviewed them for the book. In that context at least, hostility was a redundant concept.

Even my Dad didn’t take all that long to make his peace with his traumatic experience, eventually returning to Japan for a highly emotional reunion over a long lunch and a few beers with one of his old captors, a man who had shown mercy and humanity when too many of his compatriots did not. When Bill died, it was without any remaining trace of bitterness or anger, only optimism that nuclear weapons would never be used again.

The size of that 1964 team generated considerable controversy and no wonder. While it had a couple of authentic stars – Fraser and track sprinter Betty Cuthbert – many others were just along for the ride.

That’s not to suggest they were imposters and freeloaders who hadn’t worked hard to get there – Olympic tracksuits are seldom mere gifts – but it did seem that anybody who qualified got a guernsey.

For instance, 10 boxers won four fights between them while 18 fencers, 11 gymnasts, eight shooters, seven weightlifters, eight wrestlers, an uncompetitive water polo team and a few other individuals in more prominent sports were making up the numbers – big numbers.

It’s not like that this time, despite the team being twice as big. When first named, it numbered 472, once again the most ever sent overseas and second only to Sydney. Late additions and withdrawals have skewed the figure slightly, but there is certainly no shortage of potential story-lines for Australian sports fans to tune into, including that for the first time it has more females than men and a record number of indigenous competitors.

Eleven years from now there will be even more to like – and that is a very good thing.

 WAR GAMES is available from Wilkinsonpublishing.com.au, Booktopia, Amazon and bookshops.

JOHN Coates, the long-serving president of the Australian Olympic Committee and a highly-influential powerbroker within the IOC, has always been a polarising figure across the entire sports community because he rarely holds back when he believes there is something to be said and takes very few prisoners. So it was no surprise that his awkward-looking exchange with Queensland Premier Anna Palaszczuk in the immediate aftermath of Brisbane’s big moment attracted plenty of criticism. Whether or not Coates was being disingenuous when he later claimed that it was more benign than it looked and sounded and was designed to protect the Premier, with her consent, some of the commentary was too harsh – and too forgetful of what Coates has achieved over the journey. No-one was more responsible for bringing the Games to Sydney, and without them there would never have been a Cathy Freeman moment and all the other memories and benefits.

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As the Premier pointed out herself, the Brisbane Games almost certainly wouldn’t be happening without him either. In the high-stakes Olympic environment, shrinking violets rarely succeed on the field of play – or in the administrative hot seats. Whatever anyone thinks of his personal style, Coates is by far the most important figure in Australian Olympic history, warts and all.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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