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It’s Wednesday morning in London and I’m blinking furiously on a half empty Tube carriage contemplating the long haul flight home to Sydney.

The glowing, grinning Olympic crowds are gone and the ten thousand or so aubergine and poppy* clad volunteers have neatly blended back into the community.

The free newsprint lying around the overcooked carriages trumpets the greatest Olympic Games ever, but London is moving on and so am I.

It is time to go home.

The three weeks covering London 2012 for the ABC has gone by like the Jamaican relay team and it had all the power of Ireland’s all conquering boxer Katie Taylor.

Racing from events to press conferences to medal ceremonies to trains to bed to events has allowed me little time to reflect on what actually happened, but here I am.

Was London truly the best Games ever? Did Australia really do that badly? And in the meltdown over Australia’s performance at the Games did we just have a watershed moment in sports journalism?

A couple of exchanges have stayed with me strongly over the past week.

One was Mitchell Watt’s dismay at the media over his perceived disappointment at getting long jump silver. I won’t quickly forget the hurt look on the face of the Olympic debutant as he urged the assembled media to “wake up.”

The other little moment was a few days ago when race walker Claire Tallent broke down in the daily Australian press conference while recounting the heartbreak of her disqualification.

Supported by husband Jared Tallent, she offered the moment which cut her up as she came off the field of play; seeing her young nephew in tears. By the by, Claire Tallent sadly said to the assembled media, ‘you wouldn’t know what it is like”.

She’s right of course. Journalists, in the main, don’t know what it us like to win or lose an Olympic gold medal, be elected Prime Minister or make a groundbreaking, lifesaving scientific discovery.

Our job is to be right there witnessing the event, asking the questions, getting the quotes and breaking the news.

It is not our jobs to be fanclubs and look with uncritical eyes.

So how did it all go wrong for the Australians at the Olympics?

Simple. It IS the Olympics. It’s the big world stage and everything is heightened. Winning is glory, losing is a tragedy and being busted for doping is death sentence.

Like everyone else, no athlete wants to be told what they are thinking. So when journalists confront an Olympian fresh from the field of play and put out leading statements like “You must be disappointed,” it is likely to miss the mark.

The athletes were copping it from the public on social media as well and it only turned after Mitchell Watt spoke out.

Sometimes though, it seems that journalists are afraid to ask the classic dumb question; “how do you feel?”

I did hear it in London and let it continue to ring out.

Granted athletes should be able to say; “actually, I am really stoked with my silver Olympic medal, thanks for asking”, but it just shows how sensitive the 2012 Australian Olympic Team has been.

This tenth placing on the London medal tally is a once in a generation result. Australian sportsmen and women proudly punch above their weight, but this Olympiad has been a hard campaign and a wake up call.

Other nations, particularly Great Britain and the previous host nation China, have copied Australian medal plans and snaffled prized coaches.

After successes in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world cottoned on to our good thing.

We are being told that the Olympics come in cycles and that this London shock will lead to some phoenix from the flames resurgence in Rio in four years time.

A brief, personal and uneducated note to the Australian sailing camp here; don’t change a thing.

As for whether London 2012 has been the best Olympic Games ever. It is only for the IOC President, Jacques Rogge, to say and he hasn’t.

According to Dr Rogge it was a ‘happy and glorious’ Games and I won’t and can’t deny that verdict.

Neither will a shopkeeper from the London Markets near the Olympic village.

I spoke to Aisha at length today and while she was worried before the London Games about whether she would lose business to the Olympics, her take away concern was that George Michael and Fat Boy Slim did ‘dad dancing’ on international television at the Closing Ceremony.’

While business has suffered near the equestrian events at Greenwich, Aisha’s business was unhindered and she was able to travel with ease to work each day.

She was most concerned that I, as an outsider, had enjoyed the London Games.

Well I loved the 2012 Games because of people like her. Sure the sport was incredible, and in particular I will never, ever forget Anna Meares beating Victoria Pendleton to sprint gold in the London velodrome, but it is all about the little things for hard working 24/7 journalists.

There were strangers who wanted to chat on the Tube (not normal I know), a woman who drove me to the train station at Weymouth when I missed a bus from the sailing, the journo veteran of ten Olympics who shared with me his moment of filing his last ever Olympic story and and the tireless Olympic volunteers in the media centre who cheerfully changed all the TV channels for us.. and there were a lot of channels.

 As I take a last look around London, I notice that in world record time, that the official Olympic signage has come down off walls, windows and doors and the city is taking a collective deep breath.

The 2012 Paralympics are just around the corner. Bring it on.

*The BBC dubbed the purple and pink, aubergine and poppy. I can’t leave it out.

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While the Olympic world has been hurtling towards London 2012, I hunted down what is left of the “Friendly Games”, Sarajevo 1984.

The Winter Olympics of almost 30 years ago was a proud, shining moment for Yugoslavia before 1992-95 war ripped the place and people apart.

The Olympic venues in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina are not just white elephants, they are either sad ruins or they have been obliterated.

My friend Sharon and I had a car, what we thought were reasonably good maps and a general plan to plant ourselves on the Olympic mountains of Sarajevo.

They are giant, nearby mounds of rock. What could go wrong?

Challenge one was tracking down the ruins of the Olympic bobsleigh and luge venue at Trebević. The Sarajevo vantage point was used by Bosnian Serb forces during three year long siege.

The Olympic ruins aren’t marked on our maps and internet references were too vague. Still, Trebević beckoned and we were brimming with mild confidence after spotting a brown touristy road sign with Olympic rings pointing in the direction we suspected.

I say mild because we’d already been tooting around Bosnia and Herzegovina for almost a week and had accepted that road signs were not the country’s best feature.

Seven kilometres down the windy, partially washed out road later and we spy an outcrop of graffiti hit concrete on the left hand side of the road. There’s an otherwise unmarked side road here, and on this day, there is a volunteer work crew in hi-vis wear sweeping and cleaning away years of refuse.

On both sides of the road there are remnants of carparks and on the right, through the trees, more raised, shattered concrete.

We say hello to the work crew. They are friendly and curious about our interest in the wrecked area. They have a medical/safety officer and small ambulance on standby. The area still has land-mines and we are reminded not to stray from the main path.

There’s also a TV news crew here too filming for that night’s bulletin. Not wanting feeling like stars of the show we launch ourselves down the smaller road and imagine we are a stone’s throw away from being blown up.

After walking through a forest for about a kilometre we sight this view of what is left of the Olympic track.

The concrete is vandalised by war and graffiti, while old insulating foam has hardened in the elements and is gathering moss.

A local hiker with a leaf guarding his nose from sunburn warns us again about land-mines before wandering off.

Sharon and I climbed into the concrete tube to inspect the local artistry and see how far it would take us.

The bobsleigh track swerves through the forest with the luge track occasionally linking up. Several bends had us high up over the yet to be cleared forest. Our concrete tube road had no land-mines. Just paint and pine needles.

But for all the warnings about the dangerous refuse of war, there were local families picnicking in the forest. I guess this is one of those don’t try this at home things.

Here’s one nonchalant family BBQ seen through a punched out wartime hole in the Olympic track.

These vantage points were all along the track. Each one had its exposed metal deliberately bent to make the hole wider.

A zombie apocalypse is begging to be filmed at this abandoned iconic site. Or just any sort of apocalypse film. It is a film set waiting for the cameras and a shouty director.

Shirtless middle aged men emerged from the forest with big hiking sticks. Apparently the climb from the city takes just 30 minutes and is perfectly safe if you stick to the worn path.

Of course I had to try out what is left of the Olympic course. I can confirm I no idea what I was doing, but a helmet would have looked better than my scarf in this photo.

Alleged bobsledding aside, there is so much more to see..

There is no signage, but this stunning, and of course strategic, view of Sarajevo can be found a little further up the Trebevič hillside.

This platform, attached to a dilapidated stone and concrete building, is what is left of a cable car. There are plans to put a new cable car in very soon.

The next day Sharon and I decided to zoom out to one of the other Olympic mountains for challenge number two.

It was to be either Bjelašnica or Igman. They didn’t look that far on the map and we had the whole day.

Bjelašnica is now the site of a modern ski resort so we went for Igman. Well that was the idea.

The brown Olympic ringed tourist signs petered out at some point on the main road out of town. One erroneous turn to the left and we ended up in a tight cornered residential area with locals bemused by our presence. Another turn towards the mountain lead to a promising road which quickly turned into some sort of goat trail.

After a general trip through “the side of a city you don’t normally see” we found yet another sign for the Olympic mountains.

Suddenly we were rising rapidly on a road sign-posted with a series of land-mine warning signs. The outside temperature dropped around ten degrees and we drove swiftly past the snow-less runs of Bjelašnica.

We almost missed Igman. The wooden sign is small and the entrance is choked with trees, but as we rounded a corner and cruised past a few random picnickers the area opened up.

There before us were the incredible ski jumps of the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Games in all their almost vertical glory. Maintenance work on the venue so far seems to be minimal. It is manned in summer by a few people and a lawnmower by the looks of it.

There was a modern ski lift lying idle on the day we arrived.

1984 Olympic snowflake logos have been repainted on Igman’s buildings and a couple of flags are flying over the venue, but the best relic of the friendly games is the dais at the bottom of the mountainside.

It is not often you can stand on a real life winner’s circle and claim, in my case, imaginary gold.

Here is the very dated and extremely bright Olympic dais at Igman.

Photos of this concrete artefact just a few years ago show it disturbingly pockmarked with bullet holes.

The paint job is new and the rings are are larger than the ones that were slowly falling off it.

Here is the enormous Olympic ski jump with tiny little people on it.

The precarious looking stairs on either side challenged us to climb them so of course we had to do it.

The stairs were crumbly concrete and riddled with weeds, but looked doable on the way up.

This building half-way up the hillside has all of it’s windows broken and has been painted with giant “UN” letters on at least two sides.

This place was the scene of heavy fighting during the war.

This is about as high as I got as there was no clear path and I was steering clear of the concrete.

Igman’s normal hill is apparently 90 metres high and the large hill is 112 metres high. It all looks high when it is a virtual cliff face.

The prize was this makeshift set of Olympic rings at the bottom of a run. I think they are made of garden hose.

It was then time to head back down. At this point I realised exactly where I was on the planet.

I looked down at my feet and took each step one at a time..

.. all those narrow..

..crumbling..

.. concrete steps..

These wrecked venues won’t be a must do Sarajevo sight for very much longer.

Igman will soon be completely rebuilt and and resold to tourists and locals as a great new ski destination. Millions of dollars have already been poured into the project.

Trebević is being cleared too and it won’t be long before these broken Olympic artefacts and disturbing reminders of the Sarajevo seige are gone.

There is a self confessed mass murderer not far from me having his day in court.

A TV camera is trained on this comfortable man with a pencil beard as he smiles to those around him and calmly waits for the return of his handcuffs and the ride back to prison.

Survivors of Utøya Island say Anders Behring Breivik also smiled and whooped with joy last July as he spent an hour and a half hunting and slaughtering young political activists on a summer camp.

Whether the 33 year old killed 77 people is not in question. He admits it. This case must decide Breivik’s sanity and somehow explain to Norway what happened.

The details of July 22, 2011 are finally coming out in this Central Oslo court room.

Parents are finding out how their children died and survivors are revealing close calls with a gunman coldly dressed as a police officer.

What is the latest? After killing and maiming on the island, Anders Behring Breivik asked for a band-aid for a cut finger and, according to the police he surrendered to, he posed like a bodybuilder for shirtless arrest photos.

Breivik says he won’t crack in the courtroom. He says he trained himself for years to not feel for his victims.

We now know he’s been toying with politically-motivated violence, or shall we just call it terrorism, since he was 19 years old.

Media coverage of Breivik’s trial is intense.

Media organisations have large reporting units devoted to the July 22 case and there are transmission trucks, security fencing and sound stages permanently stationed out the front of the courthouse.

Seats to watch the trial had been allocated weeks ago.

The courthouse is also magnet for the grieving, curious and angry public. Inexplicably, a man set himself on fire and tumbled with security guards on one recent day, while the brother of one of the victims threw a shoe at Breivik on another.

The fencing at the court’ entrance is decorated with flowers, photos and other tokens of devotion. Every day there is something new.

Here is one of the headlines of July 22 kept for posterity under glass cleanly cracked by the shock wave of the initial explosion.

The building which houses the VG newspaper is just over the way from the government building Breivik tried to destroy first.

The explosion did not cause buildings to collapse, but killed eight people, injured others and caused damage that will take many, many more months to repair.

While the bomb detonated in Oslo, Anders Behring Breivik was on the road. He says he heard on his car radio that he’d failed to bring down buildings and, according to him, kill enough people.

So he turned his attention to Utøya Island.

Understandably, you can’t go out to the island at the moment but you can have a moment at a small July 22 memorial on the roadside.

There’s a makeshift visitor’s book under the roadside memorial rock as well as lollies and a packet of biscuits.

There are messages from all over the world, but many are from other young Norwegians trying to make sense of it all.

Some lives were saved on the island and here, on the wharves, that day.

The people of the nearby trailer park heard Breivik’s gunfire and tried to save people escaping the slaughter on the island.

Breivik was still shooting, shouting “today you will die Marxists” and the water was turning red.

This terrible event, which has rocked Norway and stunned the world, is almost a year old. For me, July 22 has parallels with the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Namely, the survival of the shooter, the quest for some sort of fame and, sadly, the high body count.

I was an ABC cadet journalist in Hobart back then in ’96. I was just starting out in my career, confronted by an extraordinarily shocking, wasteful and miserable happening.

Norwegians are trying to understand why one of their own would do this. Oslo is a “little town in the valley” one retired Navy man in Bergen told me “how could this happen here?”

July 22 appears to have backfired on Anders Behring Breivik anyway. As this monument reads a now famous tweet about the massacre, “If a man can show so much hatred, think of so much love we can show together.”

Far from knocking out Norway’s young labour movement, he appears to inspired them to carry on.

 

The ends of the earth; I’ll go to them for a great story, hell I’ll physically head there to be round on by penguins, but Norwegians are something else entirely.

With their proximity to the North Pole, extreme weather know-how, fearless sense of adventure and a background in whaling, it is no co-incidence that many of the world’s great polar explorers hail from Norway.

Roald Amundsen, of course, was the first man to pierce a flag in the South Pole ice, either Leonard Kristensen or Carsten Borchgrevink were the first to step foot on the Antarctic mainland and Fridtjof Nansen tested a remarkable theory about shipping to the North Pole trapped in ice.

So as a two-time veteran iceberg and icefloe reporter, I could not help but seek out (read: avoid) Norway’s polar treats.

Meet Fram.

Now spending its old age resting in an Oslo museum, this 100 plus year old wooden ship is not so much an icebreaker, but an ice-survivor.

From 1893 to ‘96, Fridtjof Nansen used the specially designed Fram to drift with the Arctic ice-sheet in the hope it would eventually pass over the North Pole. At that time, no human had managed to be that far north before.

Fram’s time in the crushing ice remains one of the straight up, most insane maritime mission ever mounted, mainly because so much of it involved involuntary movement.

The ship went where the ice wanted to go. So, so to did its deliberately stranded men in the Arctic winter darkness and the summer’s blinding light.

The ship went as high in latitude as 84 degrees north, while Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen later tried to sledge it to the pole. The duo managed to just pass 86 degrees. No pole, but it was an incredible feat.

It is not today’s look, but here’s 100 year old polar expedition wear Norwegian style.

The early polar explorers borrowed from Norway’s indigenous Sami culture and used bear, deer and seal skins if they wanted to survive the harsh polar conditions.

Here’s a close encounter with a fake polar bear in a Fram Museum “fright walk” for the kiddies.

It worked a treat on a whimpering eight year old behind me and ensured my time in the deliberately small pathway was short as she pushed me back into the wider museum.

This is what she needed..

It is the monkey mascot from a 1925 attempt by Roald Amundsen and five others to fly over the North Pole in two planes.

The attempt failed with mechanical failure at 87°43′ N, but Amundsen later managed to drop a Norwegian flag over the pole from an airship suitably called “Norge.”

Time for a penguin break..

There are, of course, no penguins naturally living north of the equator. So here are some sub-Antarctic gentoos looking adorable in the Bergen Aquarium.

They don’t have the biggest living space, but apart from one case of over plucking they seemed happy enough.

I visited the aquarium an hour off feeding time so the gentoos looked at people expectantly and unsuccessfully for fish.

The gentoos all have harmless coloured clips on their flipper-like wings to individually identify them.

The Bergen cold was no problem as they swam routinely around the small pool with a rocky island “rookery.”

I could have stayed for the penguin dinner, but I had my own to go to..

I also had to press on north beyond the Arctic Circle to Tromsø which is sprucing up for the summer after a long, dark, snowbound winter.

Teams are out hosing off the dirty remnants of winter from Tromsø’s roofs, walls and roads.

A dare you to find a cleaner town at the moment.

Roald Amundsen’s name, face and impressive eyebrows are everywhere. There are historical street signs, numerous statues and busts about town and a Polar Museum with a dedicated section to the man who beat Robert Falcon Scott.

At 69.6667 degrees N, Tromsø is a true polar gateway. It is where Amundsen was last seen in 1928 as he flew off on a rescue mission on the “Latham 47” to save other polar explorers.

His body, and those of his fellow would be rescuers, were never found.

Parts of the plane were later discovered floating in the water with modifications. It is presumed that some onboard survived for sometime until the bulk of the plane sank in the icy waters.

There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to find the Latham’s wreckage. The last attempt was in 2009 by the Norwegian Navy.

It is not all Amundsen around here.

Here is a tribute to Helmer Hanssen. The talented dog driver was part of the successful Amundsen South Pole team. He was ahead nearing the pole, but stopped to ensure that Amundsen truly was the first person at 90 degrees south.

It is a good, interesting walk around the Polar Museum, that is if you don’t mind animal skins.

By skins, I mean baby harp seals and tiny polar bear cubs. Still, museums are about history and that is what used to be done in these parts.

There is a beautiful Tromsø day outside and I’d better get out in it.

It is now light 24 hours a day and the start of the midnight sun is just a few days away. One of the perks of being near one of the poles.

One of the must visit places in Israel is, remarkably, an exaltation of suicide.

Masada is an ancient wonder, a Dead Sea beauty and a place of fanatical inspiration.

What happened here in 73AD was disturbing, bloody and now defines Israel as a symbol of freedom.

After staring down the Roman legion, almost one thousand people died here at their own hands. Children, mothers, virtually the entire community took their lives rather than become slaves.

Israeli historians describe the Zealots as emerging “victorious even in defeat.”.. but this version of history is being challenged.

I didn’t find any of this out by watching the lavishly produced instructional video prior to staging my own assault on the fortress of Masada.

Unfortunately it was in Hebrew with Russian subtitles. The doors had closed tight at both ends of the theatre so there was no choice but to soak up the dramatic, but unintelligible production.

Soon enough we were launched into the sky above the Negev Desert. You can spend 45 minutes trudging to the top, but my friend and I went up the cheater’s way, the Masada cable car.

The small little box takes just a few minutes to complete a journey that took the Romans many months.

It looks high, but is it? There is a strange Dead Sea calculation to Masada despite the plateau towering over the area.

Masada rises up 450 metres, but being next to the lowest place on earth, we only end up 58 metres above sea level.

Climbing Masada the old fashioned way, up the winding ”snake path”, is a rite of passage for new recruits of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The young men and women climb charge up the slopes with their packs and at the top swear allegiance to Israel declaring, “Masada shall not fall again.”

Originally built decades by the Judean king, Herod, as a palatial refuge, it was later used by the Romans before the Zealots took over in 70AD. They were running from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple and the Romans wanted to crush them.

The 73AD Roman siege was classic and effective. Around 8000 soldier constructed a giant dirt and wood ramp to the west and after many months began to batter Masada’s walls.

Isolated on top, the Zealots were not going to be taken alive. When all hope was believed lost they systematically took their own lives, made sure others did the same and set Masada on fire.

Here’s a male Tristam’s Grackle or starling.

The birds of Masada allow people to get extremely close. Almost near enough to touch.

Anyway, the version of Masada – that suicide something to celebrate – has been challenged by some Israelis, particularly educators. The main elements of the Masada story are also being questioned.

Were they all Zealots? Did they all willingly die? How long did the siege truly go for? .. and what if everyone chose the path taken in 73AD?

Here’s my fantastic travelling companion Peter Cave. He’d been to Masada before but he was easily convinced to go one more time. Between you and me I think he secretly likes driving in Israel.

We avoided the big tourist groups for a while by wandering south to what is known as the Roman area. There is less here associated with the Jewish rebels so work here is minimal.

We found this bent nail, perhaps a Roman nail, on the ground. It was left there of course, but there it is: a common item that could be thousands of years old.

There’s very little sign now of the mass suicide all those years ago. The drama was exhaustively recorded by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius, but few bodies were later found by archaeologists.

The Roman siege wall can still be seen and climbed off Masada’s west flank and it is gradually falling away back into the desert.

Tourist flood Masada. This group is following the white dove of peace.

Many of the ancient buildings have been restored. In this photo you may be able to see a faint line above the heads of the tourists.

That’s what it looked like when Masada was found again in 1842. Excavations and restoration have been underway since the 1960s and in 2001, UNESCO inscribed Masada as a World Heritage Site.

Here is a view of one of the largest Roman camps. Imagine the Zealots staring down every day watching the ramp rise towards them.

There were eight camps in total surrounding the plateau.

I’m not certain what this critter is, but it darn cute and has no tail. My Google skills have come up with the possibility that it is the Golden Spiny Mouse, but proper identification will be gratefully accepted.

The featured mouse, rat, gerbil or dwarf ferrety thing darted around the side of Masada with no fear of heights. It did, however, have an intense wariness of humans and Tristam’s Grackles.

Masada’s mosaics and stucco paintings have survived the past two thousand years in the Negev Desert.

This design in the bathing area of the Western Palace has been used a symbol for Masada.

Historians talk about the contrast between the luxury of the king who ordered the construction of Masada and the poverty of the Zealots who ended up destroying it.

.. and here is the big secret to surviving on top of an isolated desert plateau besieged by Romans intend on making  you a slave: giant, cavernous pools of fresh water.

This is deep inside the southern water cistern: the largest water collection place on the plateau.

The planning that went into Masada was so good that the fortress became an oasis in the desert. Roman style bathhouses were found among the ruins.

Speaking of baths I later had one in the Dead Sea. Touring Masada was hard work, but this may not have been the soothing soak I was after.

Floating around on the salty, warm, dirty water between Israel and Jordan is a rite of passage for tourists and I just had to do it.

The high salt content makes swimmers especially buoyant and it is a strange sensation bobbing around like you are hollow inside.

It was time for hookah on the beach for these guys.

The Dead Sea water was warm and remarkably slimy. You don’t want to get any of the iconic, but dirty water in your mouth or on any open cuts as that would be suicidal behaviour.

Who deliberately rubs salt into wounds?