Preview: With the next summer Olympic Games four years away, the designated area already has aquatic and other sports centers up and running, plus ground transportation, accommodations and plenty of interesting things to see.

SYDNEY GOES FOR THE GOLD

November 03, 1996|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

For Atlanta, the Olympics are over. But for Sydney, the countdown is just beginning.

Sydney will be the host city for the 2000 Summer Olympics, which takes place Friday, Sept. 15, 2000, through Sunday, Oct. 1, 2000 -- springtime in Australia. Sydneysiders, as the city's residents call themselves, are ready to roll.

No modesty here. "I've got a vision of Australia staging the greatest Olympics ever," said Mal Hemmerling, chief executive of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

That remains to be seen, but if preparation is any indication, Sydney is well on its way. And for a preview of what is to come, there may be no better time to visit Sydney than during its summer season, which starts in December.

Ten miles inland from the city center, the main Olympic site of Homebush Bay already has several venues up and running. The Olympic aquatic center, a beautiful facility that is largest of its kind in the world, has been open for more than a year. The athletic center, a two-arena complex, is going into its third year. The hockey field was used for the 1994 world championships. Sites for baseball, tennis, archery and other sports are either in place or designated on the 1,672-acre grounds. The main 110,000-seat stadium and the Olympic village are yet to be built, but the Games are still four years away.

No major transportation glitches are expected, because Sydney already has a major rail line to Strathfield, the nearest stop to Homebush Bay, and a loop line to the Olympic grounds will be completed before the Games begin. Thirty trains an hour will run to the site during peak Olympic periods, and buses will carry up to 28,000 passengers an hour.

Sydney's not worried about the extra visitors the Games will bring in. While international arrivals are expected to double in the Olympic year, said Maggie White, Olympic coordinator for the Australian Tourism Commission, "we have no need to build hotels" because the city, as an international destination, already has a full range of them from budget to luxury.

Perhaps one phenomenon of the 2000 Olympics will not be how many visitors it attracts, but how many fans will not come. Sydney is a city of great effervescence, but it's a long way from anywhere. Getting there is expensive and time-consuming.

Still, the city has such powerful appeal that thousands of visitors may use the Games as an excuse to fulfill a lifelong longing to see this far-off country.

After all, a romantic mystique has arisen around Australia and Sydney. Paul Hogan and his " 'Crocodile' Dundee" films created a legend of sorts about the country. The outback reminds us of our own Wild West. The thought of kangaroos, koalas and kookaburras produces a gleam in travelers' eyes. There's great curiosity among Americans about Australian life, and Sydney is its focus.

Those who make it to Sydney, whether during the Games or not, will not be disappointed. This is a modern city with an irrepressible love of life and scenic qualities galore. And nowhere are those qualities more evident than at its magnificent harbor, the heart and soul of the city.

Stretching across it is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a massive structure that for many years was the city's symbol. Today, that honor is shared with the Sydney Opera House, whose huge shell-like roof presents an image as distinctive to Sydney as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.

There's more to the harbor, though. Its waters are alive with boats. Ferries run across to North Sydney and to the splendid Taronga Zoo, around to Darling Harbour and to the northern suburbs, and out to Manly, whose Norfolk pine-lined beach is one of the city's finest. Sailboats scud on the harbor's long reaches -- as they will during Olympic competitions -- while the big cruise ships tie up at Circular Quay or Darling Harbour.

Sydney Cove, flanked by the spectacular Opera House on one side and the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the other, is the heart of tourist activity in Sydney.

At Circular Quay, the base of the U-shaped cove, are the ferry-and sightseeing-boat terminals and a major rail station. Walk off a gangplank at the cruise-ship terminal near the Sydney Harbour Bridge and you're in the trendiest (and oldest) sector of the city, the Rocks.

It is here that Sydney's original settlers -- 750 convicts -- pitched camp in 1788. They built their homes, docks, warehouses and shops on the Rocks, spreading out from this rocky spit of land.

For years, the Rocks, like most waterfront districts of old, was not a nice sector. Robbers roamed its narrow, cobbled streets at night. Sewage ran down a channel called the Suez Canal. The area was overcrowded and squalid, and at the turn of the century bubonic plague broke out, brought there by ship rats. As late as the 1960s it was a place to avoid.

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