'Our chance to show world what we have'

Australian pride comes into play, 15 hours late in U.S.

Summer Olympics

September 16, 2000|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN SPORTS COLUMNIST

SYDNEY, Australia - As the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics were broadcast on tape on NBC last night, the Games were already splashing to a start on a crisp Saturday morning Down Under. It's amazing what a 15-hour time difference can do.

A huge crowd watched female triathletes swim through Farm Cove at the foot of the Sydney Opera House and bike and sprint through the Royal Botanic Gardens, past the Art Gallery of New South Wales and under the Wooloomooloo Gate, framing an unforgettable Olympic postcard.

No shark attacks occurred. An Australian won the silver medal, with Switzerland taking the gold and Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate Joanna Zeiger finishing fourth.

"Is this a scene or what?" said Peter Kelly, a small-business owner from Sydney standing 200 yards from the finish line.

These are supposed to be the Games that rescue the Olympic movement from itself after several years of debilitating scandal in the wake of bribery revelations, and if the first medal event was any indication, the prospects are good.

The time difference and NBC's decision to show every minute of its coverage on tape could harm ratings in the United States, but the feeling in Olympic circles and throughout Australia is that these Games have a real chance to come off positively despite possible transportation problems and churlish springtime weather.

The venues are new and breathtaking, the city is scrubbed and familiar - fast food at McDonald's, ice cream at Baskin-Robbins - and after seven years of planning, the country wants badly to shine in the worldwide spotlight.

"A lot of people around the world have never really understood Australia," Kelly said, "but it's a great place, and this is our chance to show the world what we have."

Many Australians have conducted a love-hate affair with the concept of the Games since the International Olympic Committee awarded them in 1993. Admittedly cynical to begin with, the Aussies have railed at a ticket scandal that locked out ordinary fans. They've grown weary of footing the multi-billion-dollar bill with public monies.

The Australian dollar is crumbling, a 10 percent sales tax was instituted in July and many are blaming the Olympics, fearing a horrible economic legacy.

"There are some things I have issue with in regard to the Games," said Pamela Escomides, a pension-plan officer catching a train at Sydney's Central Station yesterday.

Clearly thrilled

At the same time, this is a country of people accustomed to flying through many times zones to get where they're going, and they're clearly thrilled that the rest of the world, at long last, has flown through many time zones to come to them.

Maybe they hated parts of the buildup to the Games, but now that the Games are starting and the world is watching, Australians want to capitalize on the chance to make their culture more familiar, their athletes more famous, their world more understood and appreciated.

It's called pride.

"We have arrived at an opportunity of incalculable worth to rebrand ourselves in the eyes of billions around the globe," read a Sydney Daily Telegraph editorial.

That's why last night's opening ceremony used four hours of entertainment pyrotechnics to tell the history of Australia going back to tribal dancers.

France, Spain, Norway and Atlanta didn't feel compelled to tell their stories when they opened their Games in the 1990s, but these are only the second Olympics in 104 years to take place in the Southern Hemisphere, and Australia's urge was understandable.

"I think there's clearly a sense of wanting the world to understand where we come from and what we're about," Kelly said.

Significant moment

The ceremonies ended with a moment of enormous national significance: Aboriginal track star Cathy Freeman lighting the Olympic flame, a concession to the country's shamefully persecuted native people, only now benefiting from attempts at reconciliation.

Just hours later, after shaking off a night-after languor early this morning, the Games sprinted to life with events taking place across the city.

The highlight was the triathlon, but there also was women's beach volleyball at Bondi Beach, where doubles teams from Portugal and China traded spikes and digs before a packed house of bohemian fans in need of better beach weather.

Downtown at the boxing venue in Darling Harbour, a Zambian and a Cuban traded blows at 147 pounds, as did an Algerian and a Puerto Rican at 119 pounds.

Varied competition

Fifteen miles away, a 45-year-old Bulgarian and a 17-year-old Egyptian were among the women's 10-meter air rifle competitors at the International Shooting Center.

At Homebush Bay's Olympic Park, the main site housing a dozen venues, Korea battled Argentina in women's field hockey, right next door to the archery and team handball. And swimming, Australia's most popular Olympic sport, began with heats in the women's 400-meter individual medley and the men's 400-meter freestyle. Fans were anticipating Australian swimming hero Ian Thorpe's first gold medal later in the day.

A line to buy tickets stretched a quarter-mile, as Australians who had been ambivalent about the Games decided to invest.

"I was sick of hearing about the Olympics and I'm still making up my mind about the opening ceremonies," Escomides said, "but now that the Games are here, it's much more exciting than I'd ever imagined."

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