Spectacular tip of Australian hat

Sydney says `G'day' to Olympics with unparalleled show

September 16, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - It was overwrought, but wonderful. Australia can only hope that the Olympics themselves are as spectacular as last night's opening ceremony.

In a show bigger than the Outback, Australia displayed the audacity and exuberance that allowed it to land the Games of the XXVII Olympiad. The parade of most of the 10,000 athletes from 200 nations was outnumbered by performers, as a 90-minute display of entertainment ranged from psychedelic fantasy to high-wire act to boardwalk kitsch.

The Koreas, North and South, marched together under a common flag. Gestures of reconciliation were made to Aborigines and East Timor. Once considered a land that political correctness forgot, Australia recognized the 100th anniversary of women in the Olympics by having six of its country's greatest Olympians - all women - carry the torch on its final journey through the stadium.

The relay climaxed with a handoff to Cathy Freeman, Australia's most recognizable indigenous citizen, who lighted the Olympic cauldron to culminate the 4 1/2 -hour extravaganza.

Freeman hopes to win the 400-meter dash in another week at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium, the largest venue ever used at the quadrennial gathering of the world's athletes.

"We're sports mad," an Australian woman said. "We can build this, but a cathedral or a museum is another matter."

Last night, the stadium was used to open the Olympics under a Southern Hemisphere sky for only the second time. The first was also on Australian soil, and the difference between Melbourne in 1956 and Sydney in 2000 is as radical as the contrast between a rotary telephone and the microchip.

During the Melbourne Games, film had to be transported overseas before the rest of the world could watch the action. During the next two weeks, results from Sydney will be posted instantaneously on the Internet, though American TV audiences will be watching events that are more than 12 hours old because rights-holder NBC has decided to tape results and save them for prime time.

One technological glitch came during the lighting of the cauldron. Freeman ascended the north stands, walked into a pool of water and dipped the flame into it, igniting a ring of fire.

The ring was hydraulically lifted above Freeman, but then the seven-ton steel dish stalled for several minutes instead of ascending a waterfall to the top of the stadium.

"Everything was going so well up until then," director of ceremonies Ric Birch said. "That's a time when you get on the intercom and say, `What's going on?' Nothing at all like this had happened before."

Eventually the cauldron made it to the top. The fire and water represented regeneration and cleansing.

Freeman was preceded by Australia's Olympic legends. Herb Elliott, the great miler, brought the torch into the stadium.

Poignantly, he passed it to Betty Cuthbert, a one-time track star who's now wheelchair-bound. She was pushed along by Raelene Boyle. Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King followed.

The identity of the cauldron lighter was supposed to be a secret, but Freeman was the only logical choice, a fitting follow to Muhammad Ali doing the honor four years ago in Atlanta.

The show that preceded the parade of athletes distilled 50,000 years of Australian history into 90 minutes.

Throughout, Aborigines like Freeman were recognized, as Australia attempted to belatedly recognize a people who were the continent's only inhabitants before England shipped some criminals here two centuries ago.

The leader of Australia's top Aboriginal body, Geoff Clarke, said the International Olympic Committee had upstaged the Australian government.

"The lesson tonight for this government and politicians in this country is to learn how to respect Aboriginal people," Clarke said. "It is now up to Prime Minister John Howard to act."

Aborigines say Howard's government has whitewashed Australia's history of abuse and injustice against them.

The derring-do program mixed the pomp of a presidential inaugural parade, the glitz of Las Vegas and the outrageousness of Mardi Gras, and rarely veered from acknowledging the Aborigines. It only seemed like all 19 million Australians performed; there were actually 12,600.

A single rider from the south end of the stadium turned into 120 on horseback. A young girl's daydream at the beach gave way to the largest number of people ever involved in an aerial performance, which melded art and acrobats. Some 1,200 dancers, nearly all indigenous, were joined by 140 fire breathers.

There were another 1,000 performers in a "Tin Symphony" that began with Captain Cook, the explorer who discovered the land, moved on to massive metal contraptions and finished with dancing lawnmowers. There were 2,000 children on the field in a sequence that symbolized the post-World War II wave of immigration to this country.

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