Come and See the Real Thing

Come and see the real thing, come and see

There’s a meaning there, there’s a meaning there ….

Does it really mean a thing?

Russell Morris – ‘The Real Thing’ Stage 88 Closing Concert,

Canberra Olympic Torch Relay, 24 April 2008

The Olympics is one of few international events which provides a ‘space’ for almost all the nations of the world to meet together, at one point in time and in one place.

It provides a context for all sorts of meanings: for sport, for political protest, for dialogues about human rights and democracy as well as for messages we may be less comfortable with: nationalism, narcissism and body worship, to take a few.

The Olympics, and the Beijing Torch Relay which I took part in on 24 April 2008, was a complex jumble of celebration, political messaging, celebration of diversity, a space for contested ideas, a chance to feel the fleeting nature of fame … and the pure joy of tribalism, shouting slogans (whatever they are) and waving lots of flags.

Like any event it can ‘appropriated’ or borrowed to take on different meanings for different people.

Not convinced?

Try this:

Appropriating celebrity

(my five minutes as a ‘Bravo-Beijing!’ pop star)

Torchbearers, including office bound nonentities like me, who arrived early at the ‘collection points’ around Canberra became instant but fleeting pro China pop icons.

In a surreal scene we were besieged by a thronging paparazzi of Chinese visitors/students posing for photo’s, signing t-shirts, hats and programs.

We’d run from one spot to another and more would turn up. They would want photo after photo after photo. Unlike Elvis we couldn’t leave the building, even if we’d wanted to, and maybe we didn’t.

It was surreal but strangely seductive and then a bit scary – and all of that at once

Appropriating narcissism

This Romanesque image almost seems to evoke the origins of the Torch Relay from Berlin in 1936. It sniffs of narcissism and the idea of the athlete as Nietzschen superman.

But the portrait is of a man in a wheelchair – a person the Nazi’s would have derided as a ‘useless eater’ who is not even an athlete.

And the backdrop is our national memorial to the tragedy of war.

ANZAC Day, our ultimate reminder of the cost of war, took place the day after the Relay.

Appropriating a nationalist counter-protest

And….best of all Todd convinced a convoy of loudhailer lead China supporters to stop shouting slightly out of phase pro nationalist slogans (‘Country Never Splits’, ‘Flame Never Stops’) and start shouting our own ‘pro Craig’ cult-of-personality chant

Of course, the Torch Relay itself was appropriated. It became a forum for many voices.

Chinese people proud and happy that an ancient country with 1/3 of the world’s population had finally got to host the games….

Fair enough too. What a huge games it was – bright, shiny, controversial and modernising all at once. The amazing venues – just look at the Aquatic Centre. And that opening ceremony – clever, moving and sublime.

A proud nation, but not so long ago poor and overpopulated, throwing itself like mad into the 21st Century.

A Country that the west conquered in the 19th Century, divided into European districts and pumped full of opium (yes we did). A people who single-handedly clawed their way out of incredible poverty and fought invasion & civil war on two fronts as our allies during WWII.

It’s not surprising that their young people and students – so far from home – are proud of their Olympics and want to come and celebrate them. Is this really so different from what Australian expats do?

And what would we have done in 2000 if people around the world had boycotted our Relay because we had, at that time, failed to say sorry to indigenous people?

The Relay was appropriated by the advocates for the people of little Tibet and the serious human rights issues in that place. That’s a cause worth protesting about. Their human rights and their right to protest in a democracy like Australia. And the people in Canberra protested wonderfully and peacefully and showed that this is the way we do it in a mature democracy like Australia.

The people with fire extinguishers in London and Paris have nothing on the people who stood silently for hours turning their backs on the Concert at Stage 88; making a moral point with a truck-load of dignity. Good on you too whoever you are.

And then there were the Chinese officials and ‘flame attendants’ eye-balling the different kinds of protests, forced to manage them, seeing things that could never happen in their own country and losing control to the chaps from the AFP.

After all, exactly how do you handle a protest if you come from a country which doesn’t allow them, when you’re a guest in a country that does? – all this happened because the Torch Relay was international and held in a democratic country

And isn’t that the point? What would it mean if we all no longer had any public events left to appropriate? If we ‘risk managed’ them all out of existence? Would a relay run in closed circles inside China throw a light on human rights issues? Would it be the real thing? I don’t think so.

And that is why – after lots of thinking – I chose to go with it – come what may.

The alternative, to close down yet another public space – never appealed. It felt like the boring option. It didn’t feel right and it certainly didn’t feel like me. I just don’t do ‘stay at home’ very well

Human rights become possible because we have shared spaces that help us interact, give us room to make lots of noise and contest our ideas.

Without runners, there was no relay. Without a relay there could be no protests, no debate, no interchange. No celebration or controversy. Just silence.

I hope you enjoy our blog and experiencing how I appropriated the Relay and the Relay appropriated me.