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Monday, September 25, 2000

Some Olympic-sized moments

  SYDNEY -- The Olympic city has taken on that second-week, in-the-home stretch feel. Even the weather has changed from endless sunshine to clouds and rain.

 The city-wide optimism of the first few days is giving way to fatigue. Few Canadian athletes remain in competition.

 So. Postcards you send to yourself, moments you try to preserve, before the games rush to their inevitable conclusion.

  • Half a dozen or so members of the Canadian women's basketball team have pushed their way to the front of the stage at the Moose Lodge, Canada's home away from home, on Sydney's aptly named Darling Harbour.

     Blue Rodeo is playing. The place is so jammed that you couldn't leave if you wanted to. No one wants to.

     The women's team members, Fredericton's Dianne Norman, Calgary's Kelly Boucher and Karla Karch, Brockville's Stacey Dales, among others, are bobbing back and forth to the music. Each has one arm in the air, taking turns holding and dancing with the team mascot, Beav, which is a plush-toy beaver who wears swimmer's goggles and Canada Roots gear.

     They are laughing and carrying on the way you do when you're young and invincible and a lifetime of possibility lies in the future. With the stage and the band as a background, the players are using Norman's disposable camera to take group and individual snapshots of one another and Beav.

     I wonder if they know that 50 years from now, with grandchildren on their knees, those snapshots will become irreplaceable treasures.

     - Dinner has just finished at downtown restaurant on Sydney's Circular Quay. It is the night of the Games opening ceremony. The streets are teeming with tens of thousands of people. The entire city has become an endless festival. Crowds too big to view in once glance are watching nations enter the stadium on giant TV screens set up in the streets.

     Suddenly a roar, so loud it seems to come from from below the street itself, builds and rolls like thunder across the cityscape, like an earthquake given voice.

     Australia, the home team, has entered the stadium.

  • Boxing venue. Donald Orr of Victoria, B.C., has just finished having a deep, three-centimetre slash above his left eye patched together with surgical glue.

     He was behind on points when he was caught with a devastating right hook that sent him to the canvas, his eyebrow gushing blood as he fell.

     Now he stands before the media, his face puffy, red and raw, and his eyes full of the awful knowledge that his Olympics has come to an end in the early days of competition.

     Halfway through the explanation of how his fight went terribly wrong, and how disappointed he was for himself and for the 17 family members and friends who had come from Canada to hope with him, he stops speaking, lowers his head, bends forward, and grabs for support the barrier that separates the athletes from the media people. He is crying.

     As he battles tears and, as it turns out, demons, coach Wayne Gordon puts a hand on Orr's back and shoulder. It's a gesture as tender and understanding as the sport is violent and unforgiving. Orr's blood flecks Gordon's white Canada T-shirt.

     No one says anything for 15 or 20 eternal seconds.

     Orr finally looks up, and says with the awful honesty that the ring is all about:

     "I had nothing going in my life. I was hoping that if I did okay here, things might somehow be different."

  • Early evening, walking past Olympic Stadium toward the train station. The Olympic flame -- silent and majestic -- flickers above the stadium, bright against the darkening backdrop of the evening sky. Somewhere in the distance, an unknown country's anthem is being played.

     Somewhere, someone has just won Olympic gold.

  • The Olympic Dome. Canada's men's basketball team has just beaten Australia -- has returned to Olympic competition after a 12-year absence by ripping away the home country's first game. Under the stadium, the Canadian and Australian teams are just coming off the floor. There is shouting. Confusion. Haggard players, still glistening with sweat, walk past the media.

     Jay Triano, the Canadian head coach and a member of the previous team to represent Canada at an Olympics, comes past. He spots a longtime friend from his hometown of Niagara Falls as he marches to the locker room.

     Without saying a word, without so much as breaking stride, Triano reaches out, reaches back, and with violent emotion, forcefully slaps five with the hand of his friend. Triano's face and his gesture say everything: Today we finally slayed a dragon. Today we became Olympians."