The Olympics really do provide a solid opportunity for navel gazing. This is a time for reflection and self-examination, which can take on an almost masturbatory quality. That's not just because there's nothing else on television but sport and advertisements full of sporting metaphors, remarking on our own amazingness. Every four years it doesn't hurt to re-evaluate the national identity and wonder if others see us the way we see ourselves. The opening ceremony had me wondering if we could be as cool as the Brits if we had to explain ourselves to the world all over again.
Sure, the Sydney ceremony was great, in its day. But there was something so supremely confident and modern about London's big fat show. Granted, only seven per cent of the several billion viewers understood any portion of it. All over Africa and Central America folks are scratching their heads about the identity of J.K. Rowling and Kenneth Branagh. Public-health nurses. Kids reading wacky stories under the blankets by torchlight. Mr Bean rogering Vangelis's big number. The British team marching in uniforms borrowed from the cast of The Only Way is Essex. No other host nation could resist humourlessly blowing their own trumpet the way the Brits did. Nothing to prove. Nobody to convince. Had an empire. Lost it. Built stuff. Blew it. And here's some pop music. They behaved like very, very old money. Sort of oblivious and adorable.
Could we match it? Very hard to stop an Australian from pounding his chest and making sure the whole world knows all the words to ''Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!''
The release of the new Qantas advertising was beyond overdue. Poor old Peter Allen is long dead and his homesick pub song has served the nation well. But suddenly, calling Australia home seems so last century, by contrast to the cool sophistication of Daniel Johns's Atlas, a hymn full of ooohs. The music and the beautiful pictures full of Australians inexplicably looking skywards, as if at the beginning of an episode of Fantasy Island, reflect a fundamental shift for the national carrier. No longer the airline that simply returns sunburnt backpackers to their mums, Qantas is the classy choice of global citizens, with very stiff necks.
Are we the quietly confident folks in the Qantas ads or is national self-esteem easily dashed by failure to medal in a swimming relay? By contrast to Qantas's maturity, the Commonwealth Bank is revamping its image along a more Sesame Street route. For weeks we've wondered what Toni Collette was doing reciting a badly written pre-school story about positive thinking for the Commonwealth Bank. Is it possible Collette looked more uncomfortable every time the ad ran?
The Olympic sequel provides the a-ha moment, with a bunch of letters (C, A, N and a really fat, mean, negative T) following James Magnussen until the nay-saying letter T falls off a cliff, but the Missile doesn't hop in and help him. (I swear there isn't a more succinct way to describe this.) After Magnussen failed to lead our relay team to victory, did anybody contemplate pulling the ad? It had a really creepy prescience about it on Monday morning when we all woke to discover our failure. Fancy a bank building its identity around the word ''can't''. With an A.
The campaign must be leaving customers more confused than an Australian commentator, with a tiny vocabulary that does not include ''failure'', ''loss'', ''disappointment'', or ''run and hide - Giaan Rooney's got a microphone''. The Australian personality accommodates tall poppyism (unfortunately for Magnussen), massive defeat in an Anzac sense, boundless pride in victory, but nothing for coming fourth. Highly pressured young athletes are telling us less about how we express our identity than our ads and our commentators.
The awkwardness of disappointment requires tact, in person or on TV. Thank god Peter Stefanovic has his head screwed on right when we're all wondering how to respond. ''Don't worry about the loss in the pool tonight folks. At the end of day three, the gold-medal tally remains … Australia 1 Great Britain 0.''
What are we? Daniel Johns's laid-back nation looking skywards, or a pack of parochial Stefanovics who don't mind ignorance as long as we win? Let's not answer that until we've watched a few more eps of The Shire.