A feast for the senses

Gems: Even though basketball and gymnastics are considered the glamour sports at the Games, fans who get up early can see exciting competition in sports like field hockey and table tennis.

Summer Olympics

September 21, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - Got a press pass, got a cup of coffee, got a newspaper. We're doing the Olympics before lunch.

Today.

Absolutely live.

These are the Summer Games as you never see them on television. They're qualifying rounds and heats, sports like field hockey and archery, table tennis and volleyball, the old-time version, without the bikinis or the beach.

The morning isn't about medals - it's about survival as the athletes try to advance to finals and the fans scamper from place to place.

You've got to deal with the weather, which breaks gray and cool today, with a blanket of fog shrouding the Olympic Stadium. And you've got to cope with the crowds, tens of thousands of people who emerge like harried commuters from a glistening train station and pass through security gates where the guards have smiles on their faces.

The fans sweep down Olympic Boulevard, the main street for the greatest sporting show on earth. Here, at Sydney Olympic Park, 12 venues are set like diamonds on a ring.

First stop: Field hockey.

It's 8:30 a.m. and in a fishbowl of a stadium by the side of the road, the Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson of men's field hockey are hard at work. With his ponytail flapping and legs churning India's Dhanraj Pillay is trying to work his magic against South Korea. He must have glue on his field hockey stick because right now he's weaving right through Korea's entire defense and launching a shot against a goaltender who has so much gear on, he looks like a tank. But it's South Korea, clad in red and white, which strikes first with a goal that sends hundreds of its fans into utter pandemonium, while thousands of India's fans, who have chanted, banged on drums and cheered nonstop for what seems like three days, sit in stony silence.

"India must not lose," says Sabi Cheemi, 22. "Never, never. We must win."

Tough luck, kid. Final score: South Korea 2, India 0.

Walk a mile and hear eight words that send a chill up the spine: "Volleyball to your right. Basketball to your left."

Go to the SuperDome, which looks like a giant sombrero and feels like a steam bath. The joint is packed for Italy vs. New Zealand.

Toto, we're not in the NBA anymore.

These guys can't jump, aren't shooting well and would probably lose to some high school teams in Baltimore. But that doesn't stop the crowd from roaring for every basket, which seem to come at the rate of one a day.

Enough.

Scoot next door to the volleyball.

Now, these guys can jump. Their sneakers look like hand-me-downs, their red, white and blue uniforms don't fit quite right, but make no mistake: the Cuban men are a world power and right now, they're smothering Egypt. Led by their smallest player, the appropriately named Angel Dennis, the Cubans unleash a heavenly brand of volleyball, soaring through the air for spikes that look like they really, really hurt when the ball comes careening off the hands of the Egyptian players, which is often.

You can hear Spanish and Arabic on the court, and Aerosmith over the loudspeakers.

It's way too loud for this early in the day.

But that's nothing compared to the next stop, the aquatic center, where 17,000 swim-obsessed fans are going absolutely bonkers as the men's 50-meter freestyle heats take place. It's a one-lap, hold-your-breath race that has the crowd on its feet and screaming as the sport's sprinting stars, Russia's Alexander Popov and America's Gary Hall, Jr., put pedal to metal before noon.

After so much excitement, the women's 800-meter freestyle is almost a relief. There is plenty of time to catch up on the news, or take a nap, before cheering the racers home on the last lap. But every finisher, whether first or last, receives the same warm applause. At a moment like this, you can really believe that the Olympics are about trying, not winning.

Sometimes, at the Olympics, you can find the highest of dramas in the strangest of places. You would think the table tennis venue, with its four competitive areas, tight seating, and almost dark mood lightning, would be a real snooze, especially in the morning. But you would be wrong.

Because right now, on table three, No. 1-ranked women's player Wang Na is pitching a fit. She's grimacing, laying down her racket and talking to herself, trying to figure out a way to beat Singapore's Li Jia Wei. They unexpectedly go into the fifth set, and the left-handed Li, who holds the plastic ball like a raw egg, begins to slice serves in and hit some winners, gaining the momentum as about 50 flag-waving Chinese spectators cheer every point.

It ends with Li hitting one last winner and pumping her fist. She wins and gets to fight another round.

Back outside. The sun has long cut through the fog and the temperature and humidity are rising over the tennis venue.

It's just like Wimbledon, minus the grass and the tradition.

Still, give the tennis pros credit. They're here at the Games, plying their trade in a saucer-shaped stadium at the furthest corner of the Olympic grounds.

For many of the fans, this is as close as they'll ever get to the likes of Venus Williams, who emerges from a runway with a smile on her face as she walks onto a court.

The crowd lets out a cheer.

Four hours, six sports and miles of walking.

That's the Olympics, before lunch.

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