Feature Blogs

My Take On The Beijing Olympics

Created on Tuesday, 26 August 2008 21:00
Written by Matthew Toomey


A lot has already been said and written about the Beijing Olympics. You only have to pick up a newspaper or go to www.news.com.au to read a myriad of articles and editorials.


Still, the Olympics has dominated the international press over the past two weeks and I feel like putting my own opinions down on the public record. If you’re wondering what this has to do with cinema, don’t worry, I’ll explain shortly.


I wasn’t too excited when the Olympics kicked off back on 08-08-08. All the negative publicity in the lead-up had worn me down. It seemed that every journalist was whinging about Tibet, or the pollution, or the stuff done by China to improve their image (sweeping the bums off the street). I was sick of it to be honest. Think about other great international sporting events such as the World Cup football, the U.S. Masters and the Melbourne Cup. The buzz leading in is a lot more positive. The same thing happened in Athens. I remember journalists saying the stadiums weren’t going to be ready and some were even suggesting that Sydney would have to host them again. Why does the media write such dribble? Is there nothing else to write about? Do we like to bring other countries down so that our Sydney Olympics look better?


My lack of enthusiasm quickly changed once the sporting events started. Stephanie Rice’s first win in the pool was a great moment. I’d time my lunch run at work so I could watch the swimming finals on the TV at the nearby cafeteria. When I got back, everyone was on their computers looking at internet feeds and running commentary.


It’s hard to explain why the Olympics is as big as it is. I would never watch gymnastics, equestrian or water polo at any other time. For some reason though, I’m glued to the screen. When I try to break it down, I think it’s because the Olympics DO mean so much (except for useless sports like tennis). They are only held once every 4 years and for most athletes who compete, this is what they aim for. They train for hours every day, in every week, in every month, in every year to get to this moment. It’s part of the reason why so many world records are broken during the Olympics – the adrenalin rush that the competitors feel propels them to do things they can’t do otherwise. It says a lot about the mind and the human condition. If we took Usain Bolt out to a track right now and asked him to run 200m, he couldn’t do it in 19.30 seconds. It takes 4 years of anticipation and a crowd of 100,000 people to produce such an effort.


After a couple of days of poor TV reception, I decided to invest in a high-definition digital set top box. It was a very sound investment and it has been tuned into Channel 7 since the day I bought it. I can remember bringing it home and taking about 2 hours to set it up and tune it in. The wait was worth it. I watched an evening of equestrian where the Australians were in contention for a medal. Again, it sounds strange, but I was very nervous as each horse came to a major jump. They’d seeming clear each one by a millimetre.


I’ve already hinted at it but the Usain Bolt win in the 200m final was one of the highlights for me. I remember when Michael Johnson set the world record of 19.32 seconds at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. I was at university then and was stunned by that time. The previous record at the time was 19.66 seconds. To shave more than 0.3 seconds off that record was unthinkable. I was fairly confident that Johnson’s record would never be broken. When a friend proclaimed that Bolt would beat it (based on his world record in the 100m), I said he was a fool. I wasn’t awake at the time the 200m final was run but I woke up in the morning with a text message on my phone which said “I told you so”. I’m not a “morning person” but seeing that message had me jumping out of bed and turning on the news.


The Australian press have been tough on our athletes. Too tough. In any sport, there are crushing defeats and amazing surprises. I’m sure Leisel Jones and Eamon Sullivan expected to win gold in their pet events. It doesn’t always work out though and that’s why we love sport – there’s an element of randomness. I can remember going to the 2003 AFL Grand Final when Collingwood were tipped to thump the Brisbane Lions. The Lions triumphed and I proudly wore my jersey as I walked through the streets of Melbourne. Our disappointments were offset by some minor-miracles (which I’ll get to in a moment). It all balances out and I’m proud that we won 46 medals.


This leads me on to the main crux of my article. One of my favourite movie genres is the inspirational sporting movie. Hollywood does tend to embellish at times but when they get it right, a good sport flick can bring a tear to my eye. Back in 2005, I named my favourite sporting movies in a Film Pie column. You can read the article at: http://www.thefilmpie.com/Columns/column-050215.html. They were Rudy, A League Of Their Own, Caddyshack, The Natural and Varsity Blues. A film I should have included was Seabiscuit – it’s a great movie and still the best sporting book ever written.


As good as a film is, it can’t recreate the full emotion of seeing something happen for real. It’s kind of why I love the Oscars so much. Actors strive to win one of those precious Golden statues. They usually act in plenty of movies before finally getting that special role. They then go through the award season and find themselves nominated with 4 other actors. They then go to the Oscars ceremony, sit in their seat for a few hours and when the time is right, the presenter steps to the stage. He reads out the names. All 5 actors then appear on the screen. He opens the envelope. He reads the name. At that instant in time, 4 actors will be disappointed (some more than others). They’ll do their best to look happy for the winner. For the winner though, it’s a moment that they will never forget. When many are asked afterwards, they can’t remember what they did en route to the stage or what they said in their acceptance speech. For the briefest of moments, they let down their guard and show their emotions. They are in a different world.


If you want to check out some great Oscar moments, the Oscars youtube site is terrific. If you want some good examples, check out…


Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llgL7mGYVTI

Roberto Benigni winning for Life Is Beautiful - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cTR6fk8frs

Cuba Gooding Jr winning for Jerry Maguire - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnCMqr1QRQw

Tom Hanks for Philadelphia - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBuDMEpUc8k

Adrien Brody winning for The Pianist - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HgWANva9Xk

Geraldine Page for A Trip To Bountiful - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKw6su_e6Z0


For me, there’s no finer moment in an Olympic games than seeing an athlete overcome adversity and pull off a shock, memorable victory. It sounds like a cliché but this isn’t a movie.


This is for real. I wish we could all experience such euphoria at least once in our lives.


On that basis, the three most memorable moments of the 2008 Olympics for me were…


Sally McLellan


I watched Sally compete in the semi-final. She finished 4th (just scraping into the final) was interviewed by Pat Welsh immediately after. She was overjoyed and thrilled that she had achieved her aim – to have made the final. That was all she set out to do. Here’s a direct quote from Sally – “As for my next goal, I have to go back to the track and figure that out.

I was asleep when the final was held the next night but when I awoke the next morning, I turned the computer on and saw her beaming face plastered across the Australian news sites.


With an amazing start and a little luck, she won a silver medal. I’ll never forget her facial expressions straight after. The interview with Pat Welsh was equally unforgettable. The impossible had become possible. I know there are some athletes would be unhappy with a silver medal but this shows that you can also have the complete opposite.


Steve Hooker


Sticking with the track, Steve Hooker’s win on the men’s pole vault came straight out of left field. I had never even heard of this guy prior to the Olympics. I must also say that the pole vault is a cool event to watch. I don’t know how they do it.


Hooker started out at 5.60m and cleared it at his first attempt. He then skipped up to the 5.80m mark which was risky. He cleared it at his third and final attempt. The bar went to 5.85m and again, he cleared it at his third and final attempt. What happened when he went to 5.90m? He cleared it at his third and final attempt. The gold medal was his.


On three occasions, he was just one mistake away from being eliminated. How amazing is that? It shows you the fine line of sport. If he missed at 5.80m, he’d have been another Aussie coming home with his head held high but a few regrets. Now, he returns a hero and a household name. It’s incredible.


Matthew Mitcham


We had to wait until the final night of competition for Australia’s biggest Cinderella story of all. Matthew Mitcham competed in the 3m springboard section of the diving earlier in the week and fell at the semi-final stage. He wasn’t even in the top 12.


He pulled himself together for the 10m platform and qualified 2nd for the final. There were 12 divers in the final and everyone has an equal chance as the points are reset.


China had won all 7 gold medals in the diving until this point and going into the final round of the final, they looked like picking up the clean sweep. Zhou Luxin took a commanding lead into the final dive and whilst it wasn’t one of his best, he was on track for victory. Here’s what the Australian commentator said following Luxin’s last dive – “Well it is enough. But only just. 533.15. So he will be the gold medallist. You would think.”


What he didn’t count on was Matthew Mitcham and “the dive of his life”. He produced an amazing score of 112.10 to win by 4.80 points. It was the highest scoring dive in Olympic history! Could it be scripted any better? Mitcham was just as emotional as Sally when he realised what he had achieved. His success was even more impressive when you consider the additional spotlight placed on him before the Olympics – he was the only openly gay male athlete to be competing. He had also made a plea prior to the Olympics to raise money so that his partner could fly to Beijing with him and watch him compete.


I’ve used this line before but I have to use it again. It’s from the movie Magnolia (on my top 10 of all time) and it goes like this… “There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, "Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it." Someone's so-and-so met someone else's so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."”


What I’m trying to say is that if these 3 stories were told in a movie, I’d laugh them off. Nothing like that could possibly happen in real life. I’m glad to have seen them because they all brought a tear to the eye.


There’s a cool interview with McLellan, Hooker and Mitcham together at http://au.sports.yahoo.com/olympics/video/?autoplay_id=9431379. Check it out.


Watching the closing ceremony last night was sad. It’s how I felt after the Sydney Olympics (which I was lucky enough to attend). We now have to wait 4 more years to do it again. Whilst the memories from Beijing are still firmly implanted in my brain, they’ll slowly fade away over time. Will I remember the names of Sally McLellan, Steve Hooker and Matthew Mitcham in a year’s time? Maybe. Maybe not. What I do know is that they themselves will never forget what they have achieved and for that, they are very lucky people.