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A Star Is Born in the Heavens Above Homebush

By DEBORAH CAMERON,
Sydney Morning Herald

Nikki Webster, as she swam and swooped 30 metres above the ground in Stadium Australia last night, looked down on the fishes below her and 110,000 people looking up.

"It's so gorgeous when you're up there. It looks just amazing,"she said.

To be the one who walked alone into the stadium with a beach blanket and zinc cream took a lot of confidence but to "fly" as well was an act of sheer bravery.

"I'm not scared of heights and I wasn't frightened at all,"said Nikki. "I just enjoy it."

A photographer who was at the stadium earlier this year to see Nikki strapped for the first time into the harness that hoisted her to rafter height - eight storeys up - says she is fearless.

"She squealed and laughed and loved every minute," the photographer said.

"The biggest buzz is when I fly up. The audience has no idea because it has been such a big secret," Nikki said.

Nikki is an elfin 13-year-old with toffee-coloured eyes and honey-blonde hair who goes to school at the McDonald College in North Strathfield. On Thursday afternoon, with her mother waiting in the car to drive her home, she sat by a fountain in the grounds of Olympic Park with a few minutes to talk.

Her brother Scott, 16, saw the show in its final dress rehearsal on Wednesday and was amazed that she had kept it a secret.

"Wow" is what he said.

Her parents, Tina and Mark, had tickets for last night's show and her little dog, Star, got to wag his tail madly when they all got home.

The directors of the opening ceremony, Ric Birch and David Atkins, chose Nikki in a round of casting calls and auditions that began more than a year ago.

They knew what a great show business break it would be for whoever was cast and in a vaudevillian voice Birch said: "She's goin' in a nobody and comin' out a star."

"She's very special," he said.

"It is an extraordinary thing for a 13-year-old girl to be out in the middle of the arena; the only moment in the entire ceremony where there is just one person in that four acres."

To the world, she is an overnight sensation, but Nikki has many other show business credits, including in The Sound of Music and Les Miserables as well as television and film roles.

When she felt the stress of the hours of Olympic rehearsals and needed to unwind before she could sleep, she would dance, which is what she loves most.

In a real pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moment, Nikki says that Olivia Newton-John came up during rehearsals and told her that she had an amazing voice.

"She's my idol," said Nikki.

"I just love watching her. She's my inspiration."

To her great giggling delight, she got her first fan letter from a little boy in the cast who was desperate to have a turn in the high-flying harness. "I'm not scared of heights," he wrote, "and I hope you can find time in your busy, busy, busy schedule. Please ring me." She did and broke the bad news to him gently.

For children, especially the little ones who watched the opening ceremony with its huge themes, Nikki helped to keep the pageant in scale.

"It gives kids a better reading of what the Olympics is about and that we're all together in one world," she said.
Copyright © Sydney Morning Herald, 2000

 

Aborigines Vow to Make Plight Known During Olympics

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Seattle Times

SYDNEY - Terry Olsen joined Australia's "stolen generation" on a routine visit to a clinic in 1973.

While his aunt and grandmother sat in the waiting room, assuming the 18-month-old aborigine with a milk-chocolate complexion and wavy brown hair was getting an immunization, a social worker spirited the toddler out the back door. Unknown to his parents, he eventually was deposited with a white family more than 1,000 miles away under a government program aimed at forcibly assimilating lighter-skinned indigenous people.

"They kidnapped me to change who I was," Olsen says.

Today, Olsen - who has been reunited with his parents and teaches Aboriginal dance - figures that, at the very least, the government owes him an apology, along with the thousands of other young indigenous people who similarly were kidnapped between the early 1900s and the mid-1970s.

A national commission has recommended that the government apologize formally for its mistreatment of generations of aborigines.

But Prime Minister John Howard has balked, saying he is unwilling "to apologize for things my government and my generation of Australians didn't do."

Howard's refusal has escalated into one of the most significant and divisive political issues in Australia's history, fueling threats of embarrassing protests during the country's biggest moment on the world stage: this summer's Olympic Games in Sydney.

For aboriginal activists, the Olympics, with a global television audience in the billions, is the ideal opportunity to highlight their plight for fellow Australians and the rest of the world. Aboriginal leaders say they do not plan to disrupt the Games, but they vow to get their message across through large street protests.

"If this country can't do something as basic as apologizing to its indigenous people, then we will reveal Australia for what it is: one of the most racist countries in the world," said Charles Perkins, an aboriginal activist in Sydney. "This country may wear a nice suit, but it has dirty underwear."

The official unemployment rate for aborigines, who make up 2 percent of Australia's 19 million people, is 23 percent, although aboriginal leaders say it is closer to 51 percent, compared with 6.9 percent for all Australians. At the same time, aborigines have the nation's highest rates of imprisonment, welfare dependency, alcoholism and drug abuse.

"The conditions for indigenous people in Australia are deplorable," said Geoff Clark, chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a quasi-governmental agency that oversees indigenous affairs.

Clark and other aboriginal leaders are not just pushing for an apology. They want the government to sign a treaty that would provide for financial reparations and limited autonomy for aboriginal communities.

But Howard has rejected that request as well, arguing that a treaty would be too divisive.

"Treaties are between nation-states," said Philip Ruddock, Howard's minister for multicultural affairs. "It might have been OK in the days of the red Indians and the colonialists, but would the United States do such a thing today? I don't think so."

It was not until 1962 that indigenous people were granted the right to vote, not until the early 1970s that aboriginal orphanages and reservations were closed and not until 1975 that rampant segregation was outlawed. The government now spends about $1.5 billion a year on social programs for aborigines, from job training to housing subsidies and free medical care.

Despite the effort, most Australian communities remain firmly separated between black and white. In Sydney, for instance, it is rare to see an aborigine in the central business district. Many spend their days in a decrepit inner-city ghetto called Redfern or in one of several low-income suburbs.

In smaller communities, the division is even clearer. In Kempsey, a languid river town of 10,000 people 225 miles north of Sydney and site of a large hat factory, aborigines are about 15 percent of the population. But only a handful of them work in the cafes, liquor shops and stores that line the main street. More than 70 percent of the aboriginal population there is unemployed and on welfare.

But many of the town's white residents accuse the aboriginal population of not wanting to work. "They would rather sit at home and drink," said the owner of a car repair shop. "Why do they need to work? They get plenty of welfare."

 

Sometimes All That Glistens Isn't Olympic Gold

Now the world has seen "the other Australia", it's time to put the adulation in perspective

by Alan Ramsey,
Sydney Morning Herald

EVEN the Queen sent a herogram. Juan Antonio Samaranch had us hanging for days on his verdict of how terrific we were. Our newspapers continue to run slabs of letters congratulating ourselves. We're besotted by others singing our praise.

The Herald was still running excerpts yesterday from some of the world's great names in mass communication of how absolutely wonderful we are as a nation and a people.

It seems our national psyche can't get enough of the adulation.

In the Federal Parliament, the Prime Minister was on his feet almost immediately it resumed yesterday, after three weeks' absence, to repeat the congratulatory orgy. Capital city parades for the athletes will go on all week and into next week, too. When will it end?

Enough is enough, surely.

No, it isn't, not if our politicians and the media have their way. However, before we start believing our own publicity and behaving like ugly Americans, there is another editorial you should read. It reminds us to keep the eulogies in perspective. It should remind a little bloke in a funny hat, too, that not only we watch what his government does.

It was published the day after the Sydney Games began. The newspaper was The New York Times. The editorial in question was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, published in Paris and Singapore. It is safe, therefore, to say, without risk of hyperbole, that here was an editorial read right around the English-speaking world.

It was headlined "The Other Australia" and it said, in part: "It was a splendidly diverse and inclusive face that Australia presented to the world in the Olympics' opening pageant, particularly by having the Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman carry the torch on the final leg of its journey.

"As if seeking a mirage, Freeman walked through a pond towards an idyllic waterfall to light the Games' cauldron. This progression of the Olympic flame could well serve as a metaphor for the quest of Aborigines to achieve social justice and historical reconciliation in today's Australia. Unfortunately, in this quest, the idyllic waterfall-like destination remains somewhat of a mirage.

"The Sydney Olympics will help shine a spotlight on Aboriginal culture and its historical plight. The attention should prove uncomfortable to the Australian Government. The country has made great strides on the racial front in recent decades, but it is showing some distressing signs of weariness from the progress, and a resistance to march onwards.

"In recent months, the Australian Government has ceased co-operating with the United Nations human rights monitors looking into the status of Aborigines and has opposed calls for an official apology for past wrongs. Perhaps catching its reflection in the global glare will force Australia to reconsider these positions.

"Of course, it is difficult for Americans to cast stones on this score. But we can appreciate democratic Australia's journey to come to terms with the scars of its past because our past horrors are, if anything, more grave, our own journey equally incomplete ...

"The Aboriginal experience ... is depressingly similar to that of native Americans in the United States. European settlers viciously drove the Aborigines from their land, massacring thousands with impunity. Today, 390,000 account for 2 per cent of the population ... Cathy Freeman's own grandmother was taken [as part of the stolen generations], and the athlete has denounced Prime Minister John Howard's refusal to issue an official apology for the policy ...

"Australia's move to stop co-operating with UN fact finders monitoring the treatment of Aborigines is distressing. Australia is a resilient enough democracy to take strong criticism, even if the Government thinks the criticism unfair or misguided. But instead the Government has set a horribly destructive example at a time when ethnic minorities in less enlightened countries must increasingly rely on international vigilance to ensure their survival.

"Activists will use the Olympics to pressure the Government to further the country's reconciliation with the past. For her part, Freeman is expected to carry both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her victory lap if she wins a gold medal. Her competitors will pardon us for saying that would be a wondrous sight."

Got that, Prime Minister?

The other day John Howard told ABC radio's Fran Kelly: "It was a great event for Australia. It has shown the world what a modern, sophisticated, friendly, capable country and people we are."

Indeed it has. But, as The New York Times so eloquently yet bluntly demonstrates, we shouldn't kid ourselves that that is all others see when they look at us, however clever we might think we are.
Copyright © Sydney Morning Herald, 2000

 

Sydney gives NBC their lowest ratings since Tokyo in '64

Associated Press

Fewer and fewer Americans are tuning in to US broadcaster NBC's Sydney Olympics coverage, with the 15th night of taped telecasts drawing the lowest rating yet by a large margin.

Friday night's program, which included Marion Jones competing in the long jump and the US basketball team's two-point semifinal victory over Lithuania, pulled in a 10.6 rating and 20 share measured from 7.30pm to midnight.

Each rating point represents a little more than 1 million television households.

Share is the percentage of in-use TVs tuned to a given program.

Friday's rating was 15 percent lower than the previous worst nightly rating for these Olympics (on Tuesday).

The rating was 35 percent lower than what advertisers were told to expect.

NBC has increased the number of national commercials it runs by an average of two per hour to satisfy advertisers expecting to reach larger audiences during the 17 days in Sydney.

Sponsors paid up to $A1.1 million for a 30-second commercial in prime time on the television network.

With two nights left to measure, the cumulative rating for the Olympics slipped to a new low of 14.2 with a 25 share.

That's worse than for any Summer Olympics since the Tokyo Games in 1964, when NBC aired only 14 hours and averaged a 12.7 rating.

NBC decided to show all action on tape because Sydney is 15 hours ahead of America's East Coast, and one factor hurting the ratings is the delay between when events are completed and when they are aired.

Results are available on the Internet and on TV sportscasts up to 24 hours before NBC shows the competition.
Copyright © Associated Press, 2000

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