Johnette Howard

SYDNEY, Australia—Perhaps I should’ve known better, but I was surprised to hear about the man’s head that the fisherman found in the mouth of the giant cod. Someone else here in Sydney might mention the 20-hour plane ride from the United States to Australia or the astounding 18 trips that the beverage cart made down the aisle at their first You’re-Not-in-Kansas-Anymore moment of the 2000 Olympic Summer Games. But for me, seeing that newspaper blurb shortly after arriving—the headline read “Cod Riddle Deepens”—was my first epiphany that Australia is truly a unique and exotic place.

My runner-up moment? Probably reading about all the other toothy venomous creatures that are here. (And I’m not referring to the redundantly muscled Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who want to vaporize the rest of the tennis competition and win everything that’s not nailed down, as usual.) I’m talking about Australia’s scads of poisonous snakes. The deadly box jellyfish. There are extraordinary tales of flying fish and 12-foot-long earthworms. Spiders the size of bran muffins. Saltwater crocodiles that lurk in the rivers just north of here in tropical Queensland and often attack small dinghies because the boat motor approximates the guttural sound that a male croc makes during mating season. I mean, who knew? You think you’re just water-skiing but to a croc you look like a Rapala fish lure.

As a sports journalist you learn a lot of useful information like that during your travels. This is the sixth Olympic Games I’ve covered, but it’s the first in which scuba divers equipped with shark-repelling instruments and underwater scooters had to be deployed at an event—in this case, the swim leg of the triathlon event that was held over the weekend in Sydney Harbor. Think of it: You bust your ass for four years and finally make it to the Olympics only to learn some beast the size of a Winnebago with a brain the size of an aspirin might confuse you with chum before you even get to the bike-riding part of the competition.

That’s why I don’t exercise.

To be fair, I should mention that Olympic organizers insisted the scuba posse was just a precaution and that a flotilla of bleeding-heart marine biologists (the sea-faring equivalent of tree huggers) went public and insisted that sharks get a bad rap because, see, they really don’t even like to eat humans … they only attack us by mistake. Like it matters? “Sorry mate, I thought you were a barramundi. I’ll just give you back your arm now. No worries!”

In case you don’t know it, Aussies like to say “no worries” a lot. But they worry all the time. At least about how the rest of the world is seeing them and their far-off country through the window of the Olympic Games. To say Australia is eager to be well-regarded is a whopping understatement. Part of it is the rest of the world hardly ever drops by to say hello the rest of the time. And part of it is what Aussies call their “cultural cringe,” which is another way of saying they have an inferiority complex on par with Canada’s. (Give someone from either country a few drinks to get them talking about how they really feel about Americans, and it’s like listening to someone plucking the petals off a daisy: Love you! Love you NOT! Love yooou. NOT!)

For the past two days in Sydney—or ever since the overnights started rolling in about Friday night’s opening ceremonies—the Aussies have been fretting about how some visiting journalists found the four-hour, multimillion dollar extravaganza a bit, well, kitschy. It doesn’t matter that opening ceremonies are always kitschy. When a friend of mine from the Washington Post wrote that she watched the little girl who starred in the first 90 minutes of the show and eventually found herself yearning for that scene in A Cry in the Dark—the one in which Meryl Streep, having mastered yet another foreign accent, shrieks, “The dingo ate my baby!”—my friend’s tart opinion made national news in Australia. The native press nominated her as a pariah and a crank.

Which sparked a serious next-day discussion about whether she and the other critics were right. But hey. No worries! Until I got here and realized my life could be in danger (OK, OK, so it’s not really; the biggest threat I’m likely to encounter here is some bad mayonnaise on the tuna salad in the press canteen), I just wanted to get here, see Aussie swimming hero Ian Thorpe win a few gold medals, then try the grilled kangaroo with an impertinent little Shiraz before I leave. But now? Now I’m stricken by a thought: What if the freaking kangaroo decides to bite back?!