The Olympics arrived just in time to lift locked-down Australia out of its toxic funk

·5 min read

At night in my neighbourhood, the quiet is so deep and comprehensive that it’s like everyone around me is DEAD. I moved into the area the day of the Sydney lockdown and for all I know, it could be the centre of some great party scene. For seven weeks now, after dark it’s a ghost town. That is until 10:05pm on Wednesday night when the street suddenly erupted in noise. That’s when Peter Bol raced the 800 metres at the Olympics.

At this lockdown hour, that felt weirdly late, lights burned from apartment buildings all around me and from many of the windows came the sound of people screaming at their screens: “C’mon Peter! C’mon!!!!”

There is not much solace in lockdown, but the Tokyo Olympics have been not only a distraction and a way to fill in the time (7,000 broadcast hours!), but a way of channelling a lot of trapped energy that was beginning to curdle and turn bad.

Related: Peter Bol brings Australians light in dark times despite 800m heartache | Kieran Pender

Before the Olympics, the mood across the country was as ugly as I’ve seen it.

Take Friday 23 July when some demented, feral energy was being unleashed via social media.

It was the day that New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, at her daily press conference said this was a “national emergency”.

It was the day it sank in for many that Sydney was in it for the long haul, that this lockdown would be extended and extended … That too many people were out in the community while infectious. That other states were increasingly vulnerable to coming in and out of lockdowns. That Delta was quicker than us. That the government had irrefutably stuffed up the vaccine rollout.

It was the day that several high-profile Melbourne people on Twitter scolded Sydney for not locking down hard enough. Sydney had not suffered enough. They should have a curfew and only one hour a day outside.

“I’d be surprised if the federation made it ten more years,” said one tweet, summing up the mood of the day.

The collective vibe was bad. This lockdown feels as if our screens have been emitting a malevolent energy – a sort of transmission of bad vibes and animus that can feel so strong as to cause a physiological sensation. I could feel my blood pressure rising when I read the news on the internet or logged into social media. Through screens, Australians were tearing each other apart in a socially distanced way.

Away from the screens Sydney was drenched in sunshine and sadness.

Millions of people trapped in their houses, many scared, not able to earn money or just be a person out there in the world, creates a specific sort of energy. Experts have likened it to grief.

In this dark frame of mind towards the end of July, locked in my new home, too anxious to look at social media because the rage depressed and scared me, I turned on the Olympics. It was the opening ceremony.

I hadn’t watched the Olympics since Sydney 2000 and had forgotten how joyful, marvellous and uniting they could be

It did not start well.

There was a lone figure in black, with white dust on her face doing a sad dance. What was it? What did it mean? Oh … commemorating athletes that had died. There were empty stadiums. There were athletes in masks marching into those empty stadiums. The whole thing felt like a downer.

I switched off and had another early night.

But then something happened. The buzz built. The energy was changing. The Australian teams were scooping up record amounts of medals. Social media let up slightly with the interstate rivalry and people started posting about incredible things that were happening in the pool, or on the equestrian field or across the ping-pong table. Australian swimming coach Dean Boxall celebrating uniquely! Emma McKeon winning back-to-back medals in the pool and becoming our most successful Olympian. Rohan Browning, barely raising a sweat in the 100 metres. Peter Bol becoming a household name in the time it took him to win the 800 metre heat. The whole nation united to watch his final on Wednesday. (Well, 3.05m views according to Channel Seven – up 329% from the same event in Rio in 2016).

And, for me, the defining moment of the Olympics so far: Mutaz Barshim from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy deciding to share the gold medal for the Olympic high jump. That hug! That joy!

The Games were good! Actually, better than good – the Games were great.

I hadn’t watched the Olympics since Sydney 2000 and had forgotten how joyful, marvellous and uniting they could be.

Screaming “C’mon Aussie” on the couch at the end of the women’s medley relay, or during the Matildas’ semi-finals – and suddenly all the trapped lockdown energy had somewhere to go.

Related: With half of Australia locked down, Bondi has become public enemy No 1 | Brigid Delaney

And then there were whole days that disappeared in a sort of mesmerised fascination with sports that I barely knew existed: discus! Shot put! Pole vaulting! Hammer throwing!

The sheer array of skill and human body types was incredible. To go from the heft of the discus throwers to the torpedo-like bodies of the swimmers to the sleek sprinters, is to see all the ways humans are built differently, to see all the ways there are to be strong and fit.

And although we can’t watch the Olympics with groups of friends or at the pub, our screens and social media briefly have become a respite from the sniping and toxic discourse around Covid. Social media went briefly from something to avoid for sanity’s sake to something we gathered around (phone in one hand, screen on the kitchen bench) to share the experience of watching Bol race.

We got the Olympics we needed. And at the time we needed it most.

• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist

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