SYDNEY - The Olympics are flush with wealth and shadowed by scandal.
They're filled with wondrous athletic feats and troubled by potential drug cheats.
They're the world's biggest multi-athletic show, and they're bursting at the seams.
When more than 10,000 athletes from up to 200 countries converge on Sydney for Friday's opening of the 2000 Summer Olympics, the world will confront a sporting institution that never had it so good - and never faced so many challenges.
The Olympics are bidding for a fresh start Down Under in an Australian spring, seeking to reclaim innocence and trust as billions watch 17 days of carefully-scripted pageantry and often unpredictable competition.
In modern sporting playgrounds, the world's best will aim for medals in 28 sports, ranging from traditional pursuits such as track and field and gymnastics, to made-for-television spectacles such as beach volleyball and triathlon.
These are the Games when Marion Jones tries to sprint and jump her way to five gold medals, when a Columbia, Md., gymnast named Elise Ray seeks an all-around medal, and when a 15-year-old swimmer from Baltimore named Michael Phelps attempts to gain a medal in the 200-meter butterfly.
They're the Games of Australian national stars Ian Thorpe, a 17-year-old swimming sensation, and Cathy Freeman, a 400-meter sprinter whose triumphs raise spirits in the country's Aboriginal community.
And they're the Games for the old legends, like Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin, Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu and British rower Steve Redgrave.
But mostly, they're shaping up as the Games that help the Olympics right themselves.
Over the past four years, the Olympics have been badly tarnished, from the Glitch Games of Atlanta in 1996, when a bystander was killed by a bomb and the transportation system broke down, to later revelations of penny-ante corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the International Olympic Committee, a stodgy organization presided over by Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch.'The Olympics will always be the greatest sporting event in the history of the world," says U.S. swimmer Tom Dolan. "No matter what people say, I guarantee you those naysayers, when four years come around, they're glued to the TV."
Others, though, aren't quite so certain of the Olympics' place as a centerpiece on the world's sporting, social and cultural calendar. They're big, expensive, and increasingly unwieldy for all but the wealthiest countries to stage.
"It has lost its sense of purpose and ideals. It has become a bit grubby, less distinctive from pro sports generally," is how Richard Cashman, director of the Center for Olympic Studies at the University of New South Wales, sums up the way critics see the Olympics.
But Cashman quickly adds, "Despite all the corruption and doping, it still holds a place in the public imagination. People want to believe in something."
Even the revelations that Salt Lake City organizers spent $1 million securing votes of IOC members to stage the 2002 Winter Games didn't seem to dent the public's mood for the Games. Four IOC members were forced to resign, six others were ousted, and the organization issued new rules to clean up the bid process and bring in new blood to its membership.
"I don't look at the latest crisis and say, 'Oh, the Olympics are finished,'" says John Hoberman, a prominent Olympic historian and professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas. "For better or worse, the Olympics established themselves as one of the authentic idealistic international institutions of the 20th century."
Since their rebirth in Athens in 1896 under the stewardship of Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, the Olympics have survived numerous crises, from the disruptions of two world wars to the murder of Israeli athletes in 1972 at Munich, from tit-for-tat superpower boycotts in 1980 and 1984 to a high-profile drug scandal in 1988.
The Olympics survived Hitler and the Nazis at Berlin in 1936 and near financial calamity in 1976 when Montreal went deep into the red.
It wasn't until the 1984 Los Angeles Games that the Olympics' financing was put right, when American-style marketing brought aboard high-paying corporate sponsors.
Now, the Olympics are a money-spinner, with the IOC enjoying $3.6 billion in projected revenue from 1997 through 2000. In some ways, credit for the Olympics' revival belongs to Samaranch, the former diplomat who has presided over the IOC since 1980 and is due to step down in July.
He brought the Games into the modern age, ditching the amateur rules that limited participation, welcoming the pros, increasing the number of women's events and courting the international corporations. He also ended the cycle of political boycotts by bringing together most of the world for the 1988 Games in South Korea.
It was under Samaranch that America's Dream Team basketball players showed up in Barcelona in 1992 and that tennis player Steffi Graf enjoyed a "golden slam" in 1988.
Samaranch also engineered the calendar switch, in which Winter and Summer Games, previously held in the same year, were held two years apart.
What was once special, though, seems tired, as pro sports stars appear to go through the motions, or, in some cases, don't even show up at all. With the calendar split, it's hard to keep track of the Olympic years.
But the biggest blemishes under Samaranch's rule are that the Olympics slid into a crisis revolving around doping and gigantism - the notion that the Games had grown too large.
In many ways, the seeds of simmering discontent with the Olympics began in 1988, when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
The Johnson incident stained the event. But it turned out he wasn't alone, as East Germany's formidable sporting machine was fueled by a program of doping, scientifically administered and recorded by officials.
Nowadays, many career breakthroughs are greeted suspiciously, with record-setting athletes often proclaiming their innocence even as they pass test after drug test.
The IOC campaign to root out potential drug cheats appears to be gathering momentum with tougher testing in Sydney. China, apparently fearing that a drug debacle because of a new test could torpedo its chances to stage the 2008 Games, dropped 27 athletes days before the lighting of the Olympic flame.
For some critics, though, the drug sweep is too little, too late because the public has grown accustomed to performances enhanced by drugs.
"After 20 years, the IOC finally has something resembling a credible testing operation," Hoberman says. "But the pharmacological mores of the modern world are being transformed outside the stadium even as action is being taken inside the stadium. The modern world is in the process of making up its mind about performance-enhancing drugs that work."
Those who run the Olympics face another challenge - trying to figure out how big the Games should be. The Olympics are so colossal the athletes village will likely be filled to the brim.
John MacAloon, professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and author of four books on the Olympics, says the issue over numbers of athletes at the Olympics misses the true cause of the explosive growth of the Games.
"The real issue is not so much capping the athletes at 10,000 and holding the line on new competitions," he says.
"It's caused at least as much by the growing number of media, VIPs, Olympic family members, sponsors and sponsorship-travel. So what really challenges a city is at least as much these tens of thousands of folks who are not athletes, coaches and officials who descend upon the Olympic Games. How do you cap that? Is it desirable to cap that?"
Those decisions will be left to Samaranch's successors.
For now, the IOC's old guard is poised to enjoy a last hurrah and the Olympics appear set to stake their claim as a global event fit for a new century.
"You find few people who can imagine a world without the Olympics," MacAloon says.
Sun staff writer Paul McMullen contributed to this article.