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Better than Atlanta, mate? Sydney is looking golden


SYDNEY, Australia - The people running the 2000 Summer Olympics have set a modest goal for their event, at least in their public pronouncements. They just want to be "better than Atlanta."

Let's see, better than sweltering heat and humidity, a fatal bombing incident, widespread transportation breakdowns and the overall ambience of a truck stop.

Think they can do it?

Sydney is coming after the Olympic version of the car that was always in the shop, the dog who always messed on the carpet, the opening-act comedian who got hooted.

It's going to be hard not to look good, especially in this clean, clear cosmopolitan seaport that surely ranks as one of the world's prettiest places.

Not that there aren't issues as the Games begin with the opening ceremonies tonight in Olympic Stadium. There's the name, for instance. If these are, indeed, the Summer Olympics, why is it early spring here and football season in America?

Don't misunderstand, the sweater-in-the-evening conditions are exhilarating. But as with spring in America, they come with high winds and an above-average chance of rain.

The winds are already causing major problems at the $47 million rowing venue on Penrith Lake, where the water is so choppy that Italian world champion Carlo Mornati compared the rowers' task to "swimming with waves in the pool," and proclaimed the conditions "a joke." Shooters, archers, sailors and runners also are fretting about blustery conditions blowing them away.

The last time the Games were held in Australia, in Melbourne in 1956, they were held in November and December, summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Why risk moving it up to now, just as winter is ending? Smells like a compromise with NBC, the Games' highest-paying rights-holder. Think American network executives wanted to sell a yuletide Summer Games?

There also could be transportation problems here, and in fact, there already are: Whole fleets of bus drivers walked off the job the other day, luring the national government into a long-running dispute. Take the train if you want to get where you're going, we're advised.

Other possible black eyes on Sydney's Olympic face include what is now, unfortunately, the usual suspects: terrorism and doping, with the latter so rampant in some sports that headlines are almost guaranteed. Olympic organizers also have issued warnings about avoiding social diseases, the flu, allergic conditions and alien invasions, and they could have mentioned International Olympic Committee officials seeking bribes, another possible health threat.

OK, OK, there were no warnings about an alien invasion. But given how outsized the Summer Games have become, would one surprise you?

Now encompassing 10,000 athletes, twice as many credentialed media and officials, a minimum of 6 million ticket-holders and years of infrastructure infighting leading up to the event, the Games have become a bigger headache than a weekend of baby-sitting a busload of teenagers at the mall. Why would anyone willingly take on such a task?

In the case of these Games, it was to feed the meter of a national obsession with sports that might even exceed America's in some ways.

Cricket, rugby and "footie" (Australian rules football) are the in-house secular religions, but Australians get the biggest charge from being able to win more sports medals and world championships than any other country on a per-capita basis.

"Our Athletes Race to the Front of the Pack," read the proud headline on a story in the highbrow Sydney Morning Herald yesterday.

You can dispute whether a country that finishes sixth in the medal table really is at "the front of the pack," but you can't dispute that Australia has funneled its hunger for sporting excellence into the challenge of putting on an Olympiad that does the country proud.

In somewhat the same way that faith in God drove the religious zealots of prior centuries to build immense churches with their bare hands, a love of sports has driven Australia to build a lasting shrine to its obsession.

Sydney's suburban Homebush Bay has been literally transformed from a dump into a New World village of scrubbed Olympic stadia, and there's a touch of magic to some of the other venues around the city. The triathlon course starts at the foot of the Sydney Opera House, navigates a shark-infested bay and weaves through the Royal Botannical Gardens. How's that for magical?

The city itself is a treasure, an orderly, watery blend of Toronto, London and Seattle, and there's a touch of frontier bohemia in the people, who seem to play as hard as they work (judging from the crowds at Darling Harbour's bars) and maintain an appealing, wry outlook on life. Thank them for a kindness and here's what they say: "Ah, no worries, mate." No problem.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, outgoing head of the embattled IOC, recently said the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, were the best he'd seen. He's a Spaniard, of course, so he might be biased, but there's no doubt those were Games to remember. Same with the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, which, unlike the Winter Games before and after, featured a chalet-like winter setting.

Atlanta was memorable in another way, for the speed of Michael Johnson, the strength of Kerri Strug and numerous, other snapshots of sporting excellence. The games were good. The Games were the problem.

Now, along comes Sydney, with fortunate timing and much to recommend the city's Olympic planning and execution.

Yes, there's still the wind, the bus drivers, the inevitable doping scandals. Today's Summer Games are too big to come off without a glitch.

But better than Atlanta? Ah, no worries, mate.

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