OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Australia Parties On

While the world’s athletes strutted their stuff, the hosts celebrated their ‘no worries’ Games-and their medal haul

Andrew Phillips October 2 2000
OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Australia Parties On

While the world’s athletes strutted their stuff, the hosts celebrated their ‘no worries’ Games-and their medal haul

Andrew Phillips October 2 2000

Australia Parties On

OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

While the world’s athletes strutted their stuff, the hosts celebrated their ‘no worries’ Games-and their medal haul

Andrew Phillips

The centre of the action in Sydney last week was Olympic Park, the sprawling complex of stadiums and arenas where hundreds of athletes swam, ran, jumped and threw their way through the first week of the Summer Games. But its emotional heart was 15 km to the east in a downtown plaza called Martin Place. Night after night, thousands of Australians packed the square, revelling in a perpetual party fuelled by copious quantities of Fosters lager and a megadose of national pride. And just to make things perfect, the home team was turning in a stellar performance. Again and again, the skyscrapers of Sydney echoed with the tribal cry of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!”

Oi! Oi! indeed. For a country that treats sport as the closest thing to a national religion, simply hosting the Olympics would be reason enough to party in the streets. Pulling them off with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of good feeling would be ample cause for collective congratulations. But to do all that while watching Australia’s athletes harvest a bumper crop of medals (39 in the first week of competition, putting the nation of just 19 million third behind the United States and China) was heaven itself. “We pulled it off, didn’t we?” beamed Leo Spicer, a 77-year-old Sydneysider amid the crowd in Martin Place. “Nobody can say were just a nation of kangaroos and koalas anymore.”

These were—at least at the halfway point —Australia’s “no worries” Games. Pretty much everything worked, in conspicuous contrast to the chaos in Atlanta four years

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earlier. The headlines out of Sydney were not about transportation woes or terrorist attacks: they were actually about athletes doing what they do best. About showboat American runner Maurice Greene blitzing the marquee 100-m sprint in 9.87 seconds, while Marion Jones of the United States dominated the women’s 100-m in 10.75 seconds. About a team of Chinese gymnasts Finally striking gold, and the U.S. Dream Team—despite a scare from the Lithuanians—cruising towards basketball supremacy. About a dramatic exit from the Games by the French runner Marie-Jose Perec, who unaccountably fled Sydney for Singapore and left the field clear for a dramatic attempt at gold in the women’s 400-m this week by her archrival, Australia’s Cathy Freeman. And, not least, the

Games were about a bevy of tanned, taut bodies playing volleyball on the sands of lovely Bondi Beach to the sound of classic Beach Boys tunes.

For the hometown crowd, however, they started right off with a classic display of raw talent in one of the prestige Olympic sports—swimming. For eight straight nights, Olympic and world records fell and Sydney’s 17,500-seat Aquatic Centre rocked as Australian, Dutch and American swimmers dominated what may have been the most impressive group of athletes ever assembled in one pool. Australians venerate their champion swimmers the way Canadians honour the best hockey players, and night after night they had a chance to hail their own.

It started early, when their 17-year-old swimming star, Ian Thorpe, took gold in the 400-m freestyle, then led his country’s 4 x 100-m relay team to victory—all the sweeter because they defeated an American team that had never been beaten. In less than an hour, two gold medals and two world records. I “The Thorpedo” was instantly I elevated to the status of national . TT I icon, his face plastered on bill“ boards promoting a bank and a watch company, the subject of gushing newspaper articles like the one that ran in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph under the headline: “How to raise a boy as nice as Ian Thorpe.”

Two nights later, Thorpe was under tremendous pressure to repeat his success when he competed in the 200-m freestyle. Instead, suffering from a sore throat and headaches after his earlier effort, he had to settle for silver, just behind the 22-year-old Dutch sensation Pieter van den Hoogenband, who equalled his own world record in the event. But the young Australian did win a third gold as part of his country’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay team—which set yet another world mark.

Another Dutch swimmer captured imaginations—and medals—as well. Inge de Bruijn, the heavily muscled, 27-year-old powerhouse,

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Some of the fast times in the pool raised inevitable suspicions that the results might be tainted by illegal performanceenhancing drugs

broke her own world record to take the gold in the 100-m butterfly, then set yet another record and won the 100-m freestyle race—her 10th world-record time since May. Americans took home their share of the swimming medals, as well—33 in all—with backstroke specialist Lenny Krayzelburg capturing two golds. In all, 17 world marks were broken, making the Sydney swimming competition one of the fastest ever.

It was so fast, in fact, that suspicions were raised that the results might be tainted by illegal performanceenhancing drugs. Women’s swimming, in particular, has long been plagued by cheating among East German and Chinese athletes. More recently, Michelle Smith of Ireland, who won three gold medals in Atlanta, was suspended for doping. No one publicly accused last week’s winners in Sydney of breaking the rules, but an American official came close. Richard Quick, coach of the U.S.

women’s squad, raised the issue after one of his stars, Jenny Thompson, had to settle for bronze behind de Bruijn. “I absolutely do not think this is a drug-free Olympic Games,” said Quick. “Look at the depth of many of the fields. A lot of great athletes are not in the finals and are not I medalling.” The Dutch re| sponse, from coach Jacco I Verhaeren: “I think it’s a 1 little bit of jealousy.”

In a few other sports, illegal drug use was no ru-

Jones in flight: mour. Two Romanian weightlifters were

dominating the suspended after they came up positive for women’s 100-m banned substances in tests conducted bein 10.75 seconds fore the Games. A Bulgarian weightlifter, Ivan Ivanov, won silver but then tested positive for a banned drug, furosemide, which is used to lose weight. He was stripped of his medal and it was awarded instead to the Chinese competitor he had edged out. Then two more Bulgarian weightlifters were found to have used the same drug; they lost their medals and their whole team was tossed out of the Games. The flurry of ousted athletes, officials insisted, was not a sign of more drug use but proof that they were better at detecting cheats. “The controls are working well,” said François Carrard, the IOC’s director-general.

The upbeat atmosphere surrounding the Games, however, could not be dented by a handful of doping charges. If there was a place to taste the uniquely Australian flavour of Sydney’s Olympics, it had to be Bondi Beach, the magnificent stretch of sand barely 15 minutes from the downtown skyscrapers. It was there the beach volleyball tournament was playing out, with the ocean glinting between the stands and a display of toned flesh unmatched anywhere else in town— at least legally. On days when the womens teams went at it, Sydneys male population filled the stands to admire the lithe young players in their abbreviated bikinis. Whenever a cheer went up inside the stadium, the locals lolling on the beach outside applauded as well; it hardly mattered that they had no idea what was going on.

For Australians, the Olympics became a national obsession. While all host cities get caught up in the Games, Sydney seemed to take that to a new level. Almost 90 per cent of Olympic tickets were sold, eclipsing the previous record of 82 per cent in Barcelona in 1992. So many people called in sick

Toronto’s uphill Olympic battle

To all the other sports on display at the Sydney Games, add the new discipline of synchronized selling. Representatives of the five cities in the running for the 2008 Summer Olympics were all over town last week, trying to convince the world in general and the International Olympic Committee in particular that they have the perfect spot for the Games. But Toronto, which is mounting a serious bid, quickly learned it will be an uphill batde. Everywhere its team turned in Sydney, they were asked the same question: isn’t Beijing the inevitable choice?

The problem for Toronto is the widespread perception that this is China’s time. Beijing was passed over in 1993, when Sydney got the nod, largely because memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre were still fresh. Seven years later, China has buffed up its political image, while Beijing has built more of the hotels, roads, phone lines and satellite-TV links needed for a modern Olympics. In addition, it would be hugely symbolic for the capital of the biggest developing nation to be honoured with such a prestigious event. Beijing, concedes John Bitove, who heads the Toronto bid, “has got the geopolitical argument to put forward.”

Still, Toronto is putting on a determined push. Like other contenders (Paris, Istanbul and Osaka, Japan), it took advantage of an IOC meeting in Sydney that pre-

ceded the Olympics to promote its vision of an “athlete-centred” Games. The idea, say organizers, is to put the athletes’ needs first—for example, by putting venues close to the Olympic Village to avoid long, tiring bus trips, and to provide amenities such as long beds for tall competitors. Their plan is to cluster most facilities along Lake Ontario and transform Toronto’s waterfront. Sydney’s Darling Harbour, where the Toronto committee threw a reception, is the kind of result organizers want for Toronto’s humdrum lakeshore: a formerly neglected port area transformed into a lively, bustling area of restaurants, shops and museums.

Boosters also brandish the hoary cliché that Toronto is “the most multicultural city in the world.” But amid the staggering diversity of Sydney, that hardly comes across as a powerful argument. Another complication: rules for wooing the IOC have been tightened since organizers for the Salt Lake City Games of 2002 were found to have effectively bought some votes. Lavish gift-giving is out, but, says David Adam, Ottawa’s special ambassador for the Toronto bid, “nobody knows where the line is.” Toronto does have one hope: the possibility of another Chinese political crackdown that might sour the world again on Beijing. The IOC is to make a decision by the end of July, 2001.

A.P.

or took extended breaks from work to watch the Games on TV sets all around town that one industry association estimated that 10 per cent of businesses in the state of New South Wales had to shut down.

For once, serious news was banished to the back pages of the newspapers. Two criminals escaped from a prison near Olympic Park and hijacked a van containing four Olympic officials and volunteers—and the escapade barely registered as a nation gave itself over to debating the finer points of water polo and trampolining. “Amazing days, indeed,” wrote John Huxley, a columnist in The Sydney Morning Herald. “Sorry, world, your call is important to us but right now Australia is in a meeting.”

And then there was “Eric the Eel,” who stirred imaginations much as the hapless ski

jumper Eddie (The Eagle) Edwards did at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. The Eel was the instant nickname for Eric Moussambani, a 22-year-old from Equatorial Guinea who learned to swim only in January and barely made it through his 100-m heat, splashing and flailing. Halfway through, he said later, he was afraid he might drown; nervous officials were seen getting ready to rescue him. But he finally made it in 1 minute, 52:72—more than double the time of the fastest man in the event—and emerged from the pool to thunderous cheers. By the next day, he had a contract with the company that makes Speedo bathing suits, and was touring Sydney as a newly minted celebrity. Every Olympics needs heroes—of all kinds. El