November 13, 2008

So, Layla takes the stage draped in Melbourne black.

“Apologies for the early morning wake up call. And cutting into Grand Final week. Obviously, you’re all focused on that.”

[Callo, heckling jovially]:
“Have they finally given you a guernsey, Layls? Will you be donning the black and white strip Satday?”

[Layla, forlornly salivating]:
“I wish Callo. But no.

I’ll be there though… at the G… barracking for the Pies as they give Carlton a shellacking.

No, I’ve come here to announce that after more than a decade of running, jumping, lifting… all sorts of physical and mental combat… I’m giving it away.

I’m drawing a line through all that but this isn’t an end for me… I’m not finished with you guys yet. I’m about to embark on what I hope will be a very fulfilling future.

These three fine people to my left here are representatives of WCA… an umbrella organization of World Citizenship groups. You’ll be familiar with the work of many of its members… human rights, the environment, poverty, education, disarmament, health… you know, wherever there’s a wrong to wring your hands around.

They share the perspective that we’re one humanity on this planet and that each person’s opportunities and obligations shouldn’t be overly determined by national and political borders… that kind of stuff.”

Layla points to that group of three people standing nearby. In particular to a lithe, black haired young girl.

“And that one there… is my dear sister Sholeh. We’ve been the closest friends since we were toddlers. Sholeh is amazing… for many reasons. One exceptional talent, well-respected among Persians, is her ability to shell pistachio nuts quicker than an average family can eat them.

Lost touch a bit recently but met up again last December at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Not an event I had penciled in my diary… but she managed to cajole me into going to her session on global consciousness. I was suspicious she was calling in a favour to increase media exposure. She wasn’t… it was to give me a bit of a serve afterwards.

Look, I won’t bore you with the details of her savage rebuke but I listen to Sholeh and much of what she said hit home hard. She reckoned I could do more to promote justice and harmony in the world. And a girl can’t have that said about her. So here I am. About to go off doing that.”

A gap in proceedings as Layla reached for her bottle of water. Accompanied by an outbreak of unsettled indifference amongst the attendance. This was boring. Worse than that, it was sad. No more Layla events to look forward to?

“Layla, first, let me congratulate you on an amazing decade of athletic prowess and achievement. I’ll be very interested to see how you go in this new adventure.

Your role? Will you be Angelina Jolie or Bono?”

[Layla, replacing the bottle of water and playing along]:
“Yeah, no. Good question Callo. Very incisive journalism.

Look, I’m thinking of following the example of former US President George W Bush. I might even take his surname. And as you claim I have a God complex, you can could me Burning… Burning Bush.

Yes, I’d definitely want a nickname. Maybe I’d just go for Helpy… a play on my initials.”

[Callo, unsatisfied and tutting no]:
“All jokes aside Layla, I’ve got to express my disappointment at your retirement and a certain amount of trepidation that your future, as you’ve described it, won’t be as triumphant as your past.”

[Layla, halting her frolicsome posture shows an inquisitive annoyance]:
“That’s a bit harsh Callo. I’m surprised you, of all people, have so little faith in me.”

[Callo, shifting uneasily but speaking assertively]:
“This is politics we are talking about Layls. And power politics at that. It’s a completely different sphere than you are used to. Entirely different set of skills and qualities required. Your response to my question proves you’re not ready for it. Let me elaborate.

You’re the stand out athlete of our time. I’d go further…you’ve been the stand out competitor of all time. But you don’t have an Olympic or World Championship medal to your name because you wouldn’t go to the major games. You wouldn’t even go to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker Main Event despite being allegedly unbeatable.

Why? You flippantly said you wanted to give others a chance. Incredibly dismissive and belittling. Not the way to win friends and influence people.“

[Layla, lightening the moment by applying a heavy accent]:
“You calling me a wog in togs mate?”

[Callo, at the end of his tether, beseeches divine assistance]:
“Please, Layla. Take me seriously. Just this once.

You’ve mentioned global consciousness. Well consider this. Think how unifying it would have been… how spiritually splendid… if you had consented to represent Australia at the Beijing Olympics. At the opening, the whole world, hands clasped, would have willed the moment forward that you would emerge carrying the Aussie flag. The Jamaicans pass by…nice; British… clap clap; Americans… wahaay… whatever.

But as we’d catch first glimpse of you in the lighted night… your perfection, your beauty, your excellence, your accomplishments… we’d have been enraptured… and in tears. You are a reminder to all of us of how superb our species can be.

Man, what a trip! Kind of like the Beatles competing in the Eurovision Song Contest times a thousand.”

[Layla, with mock restraining movements]:
“Easy on now Callo. Pull it in. People will start gossiping about us again.”

[Callo, unstoppable and in ‘je t’accuse’ pose]:
“Just like Cathy Freeman did for us Aussies in Sydney, you could have swollen the hearts in the worlds’ straining chests. That you didn’t says something about you. You’re a bit of rebel… bit of a lone horse. Everything has to be on your terms. That’s your character and that won’t change.

And we all respect that. We turn to you to forget our humdrum existence not to be reminded of it. Please, take my advice… don’t become some bureaucratic lobbyist stomping around the halls of the UN… exert your power and influence by doing what you do best and do it on the biggest world stages.”

Layla shields herself lightly from Callo’s onslaught. Then replies in a determined tone.

“Agreed. I will do what I do best and I will raise a flag… figuratively. But Callo, sport is not what I do best… and were I to carry a flag, the Eureka Flag would be more appropriate.”

She withdraws for a moment before continuing.

“How do I begin to unpack it all?

There’s some truth in what you say… but not enough. Could counter and say the Olympics is a highly political event and didn’t want to be a pawn of the powers. That the Russian-Georgian conflict began on Beijing’s opening day. Could probably even argue the toss about the downside of bearing national flags. But there wouldn’t be enough truth there either.

Oh, I don’t mean truth… I mean sincerity. Sincerity makes truth doesn’t it?

Callo, that Olympic picture you painted is delicious. I would have lapped it all up and, certainly, part of the reason I got into sport was to be a positive female role model. But no, I couldn’t bring myself to compete in those major events because I felt I was doing the wrong thing… cheating. Not drugs of course! Nothing like that.

No, life’s been strange. I think some if it comes from my Persian heritage. They have so many nonsensical sayings. Like, my mother has always called me baba. When I was old enough to realize that’s what Persians call their dad I asked her why. She said you are my baby and my father. That logic knocks a girl about.

And… for whatever reason… I seem to be able to do things that no-one else can. As you alluded to in your book, I have an invisible friend I call Pippy. I catch a lot of flak for it but I really do. I think he is Persian too. He talks a lot. Very flowery but never gives me a straight answer.

The world seems responsive to my thoughts and needs… most of the time. [wry smile] I want to win a race… it happens. This sports superhero gig, it’s very … self-indulgent.”

Watching the glorious Layla mumble jumbo is more unpleasant than the room conditions. Wish she’d stop but she doesn’t.

“I remember when I was five… under the duvet… I used to light my hands like this.”

She extends her hands and they illuminate like two large lamps. Hey now, that’s better. The assembled media metal stands to attention like a magnet had been stuck under them. From frozen begins a frenzy of camera positioning and jostling as the mob squeezes up to her pedestal.

“Hold up those hands Layla. Stick ‘em up.”

Layla is hugely relieved. She goes with the flow. She has made her decision and now it is out of her… rhymes with plans. Indeed.


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