SYDNEY, Australia - The 2000 Summer Olympics were rendered in extremes. No subtle dapples of the artist's brush.
The sunshine was bright, the venues were glistening, the grandstands were full, the spectators were sporting, the trains ran on time, the computers didn't crash, and nobody lost their temper. These were the Games as Disney might put them on, with no trash on the ground and everyone in high spirits.
But as Sydney was setting new standards for organization, infrastructure and interest, the dark stain of performance-enhancing drugs was spreading far and wide beneath that golden veneer, introducing a raging cynicism and doubts about our ability to trust what we see.
Soaring highs. Soul-rattling lows. That was Sydney's Olympics.
The big winner, without question, was Australia itself. Intent on using the Olympics as a chance to replace the cliched image of koalas and kangaroos, the country set the Games down in a smart, urban setting and proceeded to do the impossible - satisfy almost all its 11,000 athletes, 15,000 journalists and 6 million ticket-buying customers.
There was an unspoken but unmistakable challenge in the end, issued with a smile and a hearty slap on the back to visitors: "Betcha can't do it better, mates."
But if the Sydney Games are leaving a can-do legacy, the games of Sydney are leaving a horrid blotch on the chronicle of Olympic sports. The specter of drugs was almost everywhere, from track to swimming to weightlifting, reduced to a farce by positive tests, and from gymnastics to cycling to kayaking, in which a Bulgarian who tested positive in July was allowed to win gold medals.
So many athletes were injecting themselves in the Olympic Village that organizers set up bins for the used needles. Many of the injections were for legitimate medical reasons, but you have to wonder.
The lowest lows.
What about the highest highs? The best moment of the Games? That's easy. Aborigine track star Cathy Freeman's desperate, late sprint to the gold medal in the women's 400 meters was unforgettable, watched by more than half of Australia and accompanied by a crowd roar as loud as any you will hear.
It was a profound moment for Australians, just beginning to confront their shameful treatment of the indigenous people. Seldom do sports really make a difference, but as Freeman celebrated with her Australian and Aborigine flags, you could almost feel the nation pausing at least for one night and saying, "You know, maybe we should try to do this."
The worst moment of the games? The drug scandal resulting in a gold medal being taken away from a 16-year-old gymnast guilty only of taking cold medicine.
A team doctor gave Romania's Andreea Raducan the medicine, which contained a banned stimulant, on the eve of the women's all-around competition, which Raducan won. Everyone agreed it had no effect on her performance. Everyone agreed she deserved the gold. A high-ranking Olympic official admitted that it was "harsh" to take away the medal.
But with the Olympics trying to adhere to a zero-tolerance policy, Raducan was stripped of her medal while other athletes who had tested positive for steroids were still competing, because of loopholes.
The bad losers included American gymnast Blaine Wilson, who fell all over himself and blamed everyone except the person doing the falling, and sprinter John Capel Jr., who finished last in the 200 meters and ripped judges, competitors, even people who weren't in the race.
The good losers included the U.S. women's soccer team, which was just as gracious after losing the final to Norway as it was after winning the World Cup last year. American swimmer Gary Hall Jr. lost a relay on the last stroke to Australia's Ian Thorpe, climbed out of the pool and said, "Best race I ever swam in." Australia's Susie O'Neill also showed class after losing a race she was expected to win.
The good winners start with American swimmer Misty Hyman, who was shocked to upset O'Neill and couldn't contain her giggly excitement. It was a flashback to the Olympics as they used to be, when innocents exceeded even their own expectations.
U.S. heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner won with a joyous cartwheel after stunning Russian monster Alexander Karelin in perhaps the biggest upset of these Games. And all Africa celebrated when Cameroon won the men's soccer gold on penalty kicks.
Bad winners? Well, the men's soccer players from Italy took off their shorts and threw them in the crowd after beating Australia. But that's either bad or good, depending on your point of view.
Here's a better suggestion: The Dream Teamers. Overmatched Lithuania almost beat them in what would have been one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, and U.S. star Vince Carter responded with a "We're No. 1" signal at the final buzzer. The high-profile American barely bothered to shake hands.
Dare we say it: If you had half a heart, you were pulling for Lithuania that night.