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January 16, 2005

Passion and glory as loud as it gets

From: The Age, Australia - Jan 16, 2005

By John Edler
January 16, 2005

Yes, as sporting events go the Deaflympics is a quieter affair - such that when a woman tells her friend "it's just so beautiful" her voice fills up the entrance hall of Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre like a chainsaw.

The women aren't actually here for the Games - they've brought their kids swimming. But they're taking a moment to marvel at the fact that they're (seemingly) the only people talking in the traditional way that makes a lot of noise.

Everybody else, no matter where you look, is conversing with their hands and faces - sometimes with their legs and chests as well.

On the benches just inside the automatic doors a man is holding court with such drama and extravagance - and dare I say, charisma - that I'm reminded of campfire tales. Over in a corner, a woman has her back to the promenade as she tells off her husband with firecracker fingerwork. You know he's being told off because of the universal way he's holding his palms up, the begging gesture of getting the point and wanting to move on. (So much for the so-called "private world" of the deaf.)

In one family group, two young sisters are engaged in furious gossip, moving their lips quickly as if they're unable to keep up with their hands - with their eyes half on their parents who are chatting with friends they've met at the basketball

"Look at the counter staff in the cafe," says one of the mums - amazed that half a dozen young people could be blessed with coffee-making skills and know how to sign.

And that's when the other mum says: "It's just so beautiful."

Then she catches me listening in - that is, she wonders if I can hear her.

I nod my head, wave my hand in a circle to indicate the scene, give a thumbs up and say that I think it's beautiful too: the intensity of engagement; the fact that in signing people have to pay close attention to one another.

"You just don't know if it's condescending to say so," she says.

"I think it'd be more condescending just to ignore it," says her friend who then slips from adoring the humanity to woeful inanity by adding: "They just seem much nicer people . . . much happier."

I head off to the badminton courts, where Japan is trouncing Korea.

The teams' cheer squads are sitting in opposite stands - waving flags with glee whenever a point is scored or service is won.

The Japanese cheer squad increasingly lets out a collective "RAAAAGH!" - but just about everyone else sits quietly.

Even when the spectators chat to one another, there's a muted quality to their signing - as if their fingers are whispering so as not to distract the players. Or maybe they're just trying to keep things to themselves.

Pacing the floor at the back of the court is the kind of cove you used to find in great numbers in country pubs of a weekday afternoon. At the moment he's talking to himself - not just his lips moving, but his hands mumbling automatically.

I ask if he's got money on the Koreans. He reads it on my lips, smiles, begins to tell me with his hands - and then laughs with his eyes and a faint rasp in his throat. When he realises I have no idea what he's talking about, he shrugs.

Ten minutes later, in the front row at the basketball, where the Lithuanian women's team are 20 points ahead of the Ukrainians, we share an ancient joy watching the Lithuanian coach turn himself inside out as he wordlessly beseeches players to move this way or that. Frantic and theatrical, almost hurting from spasms of passion, this is as loud as it gets.

Copyright © 2005. The Age Company Ltd.