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Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Blaze of glory reaches Sydney

  WESTMEAD, Australia -- It is 4:25 a.m., the dawn little more than a rumour on the horizon.

 It is so cold you can see your own breath.

 Here, in a quiet, otherwise nondescript bedroom community on the outskirts of Sydney, a 71-year-old Australian man named John Isaac will become an Olympic hero.

 At precisely 4:35, a stately procession of police cars and support vehicles with lights flashing rouse the suburban night and silently make their way down Hawksbury Street. They turn a corner and come into the roundabout in front of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children.

 OBLIVIOUS TO TIME

 There, at the hospital's front doors, oblivious to the hour, are children in wheelchairs, nurses, volunteers cooking eggs and toast on outdoor grills, and hundreds of well-wishers who want to see the Olympic dream come alive before their eyes.

 In their midst stands Isaac, a short, roundish man in his official flagbearer white shorts and shirt. He will become the day's first bearer of the Olympic flame. He chats with friends and family, some of whom have travelled all the way from Lebanon for this moment, and poses for photos with his still flameless torch held high and patiently in his left hand.

 And then down the street toward Isaac comes the procession. A runner -- a member of the flame's security team -- comes into view. The runner is holding a torch bearing the Olympic flame, lit not long before from the safety lantern that houses it -- under guard -- each night.

 This is the flame which the world will watch ignite the Games of the 27th Olympiad.

 Since May 11, when it was kindled at Olympus, Greece, the flame has travelled some 27,000 kilometres. It has been carried through 13 countries by nearly 11,000 runners. Since arriving in Australia, it has gone by train, by divers under water, by camel and lifesaving boat.

 It has been carried by Australia's oldest living man, 109-year-old Jack Lockett, who has lived during three centuries and fought in the First World War.

 It has been carried by a 74-year-old man who dropped dead of a heart attack after running his leg of the relay.

 In some cases it has sparked controversy over who got to be an official bearer. It has been nearly snuffed out by a high school student concealing a fire extinguisher along the relay route. The other day it was nearly thrown into the sea by a man who snatched the torch from former world surfing champion Tom Carroll before police wrestled the man to the ground.

 COULDN'T SLEEP

 Today, it will be carried some 400 metres by Isaac, who came to Australia from Lebanon in 1935 and carved out a life devoted to helping the blind.

 "I slept a couple of hours," Isaac said. "I'm very excited. This is an honour before the entire world."

 The security runner approaches Isaac, stands next to him, pauses for the cameras to record the beginning of the flame's 98th day since it arrived in Australia, and then solemnly touches his torch to the one held by Isaac.

 The light instantly comes alive in his thick hand. His eyes beam from behind his wire spectacles, and as his family and the crowd applauds and cheers, he steps out into the night, his flame a literal and figurative light.

 "Up until this moment, I didn't feel part of the Olympics," said Fahed Elsusu, a 36-year-old Israeli-Arab taxi driver who has lived in Australia for 15 years and who has just witnessed the ceremony. Half an hour earlier, Elsusu had softly awakened his six-year-old son Gabby so he could be here and witness history.

 "Suddenly the feeling is with you," Elsusu said. "Suddenly the Olympics is real and means something."

 Standing curbside as Isaac makes his way to his handoff point are two of Isaac's children, Gerard, 43, and Gwen, 42.

 Both are legally blind.

 "I don't need to see the flame," Gwen Isaac said. "I can feel the atmosphere."

 "The Olympics isn't necessarily about what you see," Gerard Isaac said. "The Olympics is also about what you feel."