Olympic Kitsch

September 17, 2000

It was always going to be a media bonanza, but the orgy of praise heaped on Friday night’s Olympic opening ceremonies exceeded expectations. Whatever fears SOCOG or the IOC might have held for Sydney 2000 were swept away in a tidal wave of adulation, as columnists and talking heads vied with one another to find enough superlatives to describe the “magic” of the occasion. Indeed, the response was so overwhelmingly positive that those who dared use the word “kitsch” did so almost apologetically. For the most part, one read only how the ceremonies had contained nothing to make us “cringe”; how they had avoided the “clichés”, how they represented a victory over cynicism and carping critics.

Is it too heretical to suggest that the events of Friday night were kitsch from start to finish? One might even see the Olympics opener as the apotheosis of kitsch: a kitsch so dazzling and monumental that it almost transcended itself and convinced audiences they were seeing the true “essence of Australia” unfolding on their screens.

Kitsch, to put it bluntly, is crap with pretensions to sincerity. Kitsch takes all the emotions associated with great art, and packages them in the most compact, user-friendly fashion; editing out anything which may be disturbing or complex. Kitsch tugs unashamedly on our heartstrings, turning the beautiful into the cute, and the tragic into the sentimental. Kitsch’s closest companion is nostalgia, and its greatest enemy is irony. So while the opening ceremonies were praised for the light-hearted and larrikin way they looked at familiar Australian icons, the humour was merely the colourful frame into which the unifying “message” of the Games was inserted.

Had television viewers been insensitive to this message, they were assisted by Channel Seven’s commentators, who kept up a running commentary of awesome banality. “Our dream girl and Djakapurra survey the wonder of it all…” they crooned. We heard about “Australia riding on the sheep’s back”, and that old chestnut, “the Australian Way of Life”. We recognised “the multicultural society we have today under southern skies”, and saw how Juan Antonio Samaranch and Dawn Fraser were “enthralled” by the performance. “The challenge is to embrace the Olympic experience,” the commentators instructed us at the end of the evening. “Let’s all work to confound the cynics and the critics.”

In reality it would be more of a challenge to avoid the Olympic experience at the moment than to embrace it. As for joining together in an idealistic band, eager to burn the cynics and the critics, does this mean that all the scandals and controversies of the past two years are to be forgiven and forgotten now that the circus has come to town? What a loveable old chap Juan Antonio Samaranche seemed when he said “G’day” to the masses, or when he paid “a special tribute to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” One knew, at this moment, that cynicism had been vanquished. Why only last year, Monsieur Le Presidente had praised the “primitive art” of the same indigenous people when the Aboriginal Memorial from the National Gallery of Australia had been shown in Lausanne.

We have travelled a long way from Baron de Coubertin’s original ideals for the modern Olympics – the promotion of peace and international co-operation through sport. The modern Olympics began as a scheme for promoting human fraternity, a way of healing the scars of 19th century conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. But while Coubertin’s dream has been mocked by the 20th century, which proved bloody beyond all reckoning, the spirit of the Olympics has never been extinguished.

Not extinguished, but frequently abused and caricatured. Under the banner of universal peace, harmony and good will, many Olympic Games have been masterpieces of national propaganda. The most obvious case was the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which Hitler used as a stage to present Nazism to the world in the most agreeable light. The anti-Jewish signs were removed from Berlin and surrounds, and the rigid discipline of the regime was temporarily relaxed. Gigantism was part of Hitler’s plan for impressing foreign visitors with the grandeur of his reborn Reich, the centrepiece being the buildings of Albert Speer which paid homage to Greek and Roman architecture. These classical tastes provided great scope for the Führer’s own love affair with kitsch, although it was a form “impregnated both with blood and saccharine”, as the novelist Hermann Broch put it

Hitler’s monumental ambitions have been echoed by later Olympic Games, although with less sinister intentions. No host nation has been unaware of the potential for using Olympic kitsch to convey political propaganda, whether the system being showcased was communist – as in the Moscow Olympics of 1980, or capitalist – notably the Los Angeles Games of 1984, which were the first ever to make a profit. Places on the LA torch relay were sold for $3,000 a kilometre, and for the first time Olympic symbols were leased to commercial sponsors.

After Los Angeles there were serious question marks over Baron de Courbertin’s intentions that the Games should remain an event for amateurs, organised by a body that stood outside of politics and commercialism. Seen in this light, the present-day IOC is unrecognisable, and the commercial exploitation of the Games accepted as a budgetary necessity. Atlanta was viewed as the pinnacle of modern commercialism, but Sydney may yet surpass its predecessors. It is not so easy, however, to decide exactly what we are selling. The opening ceremony was not a simplistic hymn to the glories of capitalism – the triumph of capitalism nowadays does not need to be underlined. It would be more accurate to say that Ric Birch’s cavalcade of kitsch was selling a particular image of Australia – not just to the rest of the world, but to Australians themselves. It suggested a nation of people as cute ‘n’ cuddly as those ubiquitous Olympic mascots, Syd, Millie and Olly.

Hardly a stereotype was missing from the opening ceremony: pioneers, drovers, wood choppers, shearers, workers, bushrangers, backyard warriors from the suburbs. The 2,000 musicians of the international marching band dressed in akubra hats and Drizabones, in unlikely shades of red, white and blue, conjured up thoughts of the mass spectacles favoured by the Führer, but in this instance, the effect was entirely comical. It was like watching an army of yuppies, dressed in a particularly dandyish version of a stockman’s outfit, ready for a weekend in the country. It was kitsch in strident, militant and marching form.

Yet if there was a single dominant impression to be taken away from the opening ceremony, it was the self-conscious inclusiveness of the event. The Prime Minister may not want to apologise to the Aborigines, but Friday night was one vast pageant of Reconciliation-in-action. The Aboriginal dancers who performed in the centre of Stadium Australia were drawn from all parts of the country – even down to the figures on stilts who represented the “Bradshaw” figures known only from cave paintings in the North-West. The little “Dream girl” or “Hero girl”, Nikki Webster, communed with the Aboriginal dancers, and stood hand-in-hand with “the songman” Djakapurra in the midst of the great spectacle. It was inevitable that Cathy Freeman would light the torch.

There is no way the “cynics and critics” can condemn the heavy emphasis on Aboriginal participation – or the equally grandiose “celebration of women” that culminated in the torch changing hands through generations of famous female athletes. It is, however, one of the attributes of kitsch that it presents an entirely artificial, pre-sweetened version of reality. At Stadium Australia, we saw a nation in which black and white, male and female, young and old, farmer and city-dweller, live side-by-side in “a world of harmony”, as Nikki Webster sang. In Nikki’s song, and the other sugary pap served up by John Farnham, Olivia Newton-John, Vanessa Amorosi and Tina Arena, the opening ceremony revealed its true colours. It was Young Talent Time on a global scale, Countdown raised to the level of Wagnerian opera. We can only hope that Australia will keep smiling when the party is over.

Story for The Australian, 17 September 2000