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The one field of exception to this unseemly prejudice is sport, the real religion of Down Under. The idea of non-Úlitist sport is, of course, an absurdity. No Australian would waste time watching a football match in which nobody was better than anyone else, or a horse race in which every nag plunked along at exactly the same speed. And (of course) Australians find no contradiction in that. Ours is the meritocracy that dare not speak its name. Some australians will tell you they have a classless society. This is the merest fantasy. Never since human societies began has there been a classless one. We began with the most ironbound of all class distinctions, between prisoners and the free. The freeborn (the "sterling") were bitterly opposed to giving up their social placement above the ex-convicts and their children (the "currency"). But the "lower orders" that is, most 19th century Australians fiercely resented the pretensions of the nobs and were well aware that in a pioneer environment Lady Luck was a more powerful queen than Victoria Regina. This was rammed home after the discovery of gold in Ballarat in 1851, just after the California gold rush. "All the aristocratic feelings and associations of (England)," wrote John Sherer, an observer of the gold rush in 1853, "are at once annihilated ... It is not what you were, but what you are, that is the criterion."
Today's Australians may be more sophisticated than last century's digger with his pockets full of gold dust, but at root the dotcom millionaires of the late 1990s are not so very different from their mining ancestors. The metaphor of all wealth production is gambling and Australians are among the most shamefully obsessed gamblers in the world. We have 20 times as many "pokies" poker machines per person as Americans. Our styles of wealth production enforce the belief that superiority is luck and only luck: no moral lessons apply. The Puritan impulse toward social responsibility that created the American system of educational, cultural and scientific philanthropy hardly exists in Australia.
And we are poor at symbolizing ourselves. Many of us would like to snip the Union Jack off our flag, but no one can agree on a new design. Our official Olympic mascots and emblems are kitsch, climaxing last month in the Great Medal Screwup: it turned out that all the Olympic medals, the bronze and the silver as well as the gold, had been designed to feature not the Parthenon in Athens, not even the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, but the Colosseum in Rome, less noted for Olympic-style friendship than for gladiatorial butchery. What the hell, the officials of the Sydney Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games apparently reasoned; it's still the ancient world, right? Then it befell some luckless S.O.C.O.G. flack to claim it wasn't meant to be the Colosseum, just a Colosseum. Nice try, kid. It was too late to make new medals.
Apart from the kangaroo, the koala and other enchanting marsupials, Australia seems short of identity icons. There is, of course, Ayers Rock, the most sublime stone on earth. There is also the incomparable Great Barrier Reef, a single coral organism some 1,250 miles long. We have two famous structures, both in Sydney: the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the latter a masterpiece by the Danish architect Jorn Utzon. Perched on one of the world's most beautiful sites for a ceremonial building, a headland in Sydney Harbor, and surrounded on three sides by sapphire water, this great building was never seen in completion by its architect. He resigned under stress and never came back to Sydney, so that the promise of those lovely tiled arcs and shells is not fulfilled by the interior, awkwardly finished by a local designer.