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Thursday, September 14, 2000

Aussies set the bar high

Hosts with the most? Down Under, they're talking about 60 medals


  SYDNEY -- To get an idea of just how sports-mad Australia is, consider that the stated objective at the Sydney Olympics is to win 60 medals, 20 of them gold.

 That's a stunning ambition for any nation, and especially a former dominion of only 19 million people which, for most of us, is at the far end of the world. After all, Canada, which is often compared with Australia, didn't win a single gold medal at its only Summer Games in Montreal in 1976.

 Greg Joy's silver medal in the high jump in 1976 was such a national treasure that it was shown for years on television as O Canada closed broadcasts every night. But Australians might wish to remember that they didn't win any gold medals in Montreal, either.

 Canada's Alex Baumann, a double gold medallist in 1984 and world-record holder who has settled in Australia, says the attitude of many Canadian athletes at the Olympics has always been that they are simply happy to have the privilege to participate. Australians, Baumann says, are going to Sydney for only one reason -- to win gold medals.

 Still, 60 medals seems a little far-fetched, given that Australia's greatest sporting passions -- Aussie rules football, rugby, cricket, surfing and horse racing -- are not Olympic sports. But everyone in Oz reckons, and reckons is a word that Australians are forever uttering, that the swimming pool will produce dozens of medals.

 Swimmer Ian Thorpe, a multiple world record-holder with incredibly long arms and Paul Bunyan feet, who was long ago dubbed the Thorpedo, should lead the way in the pool with as many as seven gold medals. That is, if the quiet, 17-year-old freestyle specialist's European critics are not finally proved to be right when they accuse him of taking performance-enhancing drugs.

 Australia's sentimental favourite for a gold medal is Cathy Freeman, the aborigine runner who has become as much as symbol for her people as tennis star Evonne Goolagong was in her day. But there is immense cockiness about Australia's medal chances in almost all of the Olympic sports being offered in Sydney.

 Good performances are a near certainty in men's and women's field hockey. There are also great hopes in beach volleyball, which Australians feel evokes their natural love of surf, sand and sun.

 A bittersweet irony that has been widely noted by Canadian sports administrators is that Australia's burgeoning Olympic prowess has grown up around its Institute of Sport in Canberra, which was developed after studying what Sport Canada was up to in its funding heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s.

 The Institute, which is more like a university with a giant phys-ed faculty, was Australia's formal response to a deep sense of national humiliation at having done so poorly 24 years ago in Montreal. Canada's formal response to the same pathetic situation resulted in plans that petered out years ago.

 Australians are keen to show the world more than a pot full of medals. Having spent $2.3 billion and counting on the Games, they are promising a wild party. To get an idea of how different some attitudes are Down Under, Sydney 2000, the official Olympic home page, has direct links leading to "gay-friendly" night spots. Dancers who have made the annual Gay Parade into a huge event have also been promised a place at the opening ceremony and yes, ballroom dancing is -- for the first, and let's hope for the last time -- an Olympic demonstration sport.

 The Australian press has been full of stories for many months now about how fed up Sydneysiders have become over Olympics screwups. There has been great public anger over ticketing fiascos, which had left most of the top seats in the hands of faceless corporate fat cats and well beyond the reach of Australia's aggrieved sporting fanatics.

 There was also a row over plans, since dropped, to ban spectators from bringing their own food and drink to Olympic venues to protect the exclusivity of the twin citadels of Olympic corporatism, McDonald's and Coca-Cola.

 There are also genuine concerns over transportation chaos. Most of the events are being held at the main Olympic site in the suburb of Homebush Bay. Almost every one of the 700,000 foreign visitors attending the Games will be dependent on a single new rail line and a single new railway station.

 There are other ominous signs that the rail system may not pass the Olympics hurdle. Sydney's urban passenger network has had several dozen accidents this year, including one recently near the beach-volleyball venue at Bondi Beach and some 60 drivers have been suspended for derailing trains or going through red signals.

 A crash, three-month course to make up for an extreme shortage of qualified train engineers had to be abandoned when three of the graduates sent their trains barrelling through red lights. Public confidence is understandably at a low ebb and Olympic organizers have actually suggested that the public help the Olympics avoid gridlock by walking so that foreigners can ride.

 There may be a warning in this for Toronto, whose bid for the 2008 Summer Games was marked down by the International Olympic Committee last month because too many of the events are concentrated near the lakefront.

 Toronto's bid committee would also do well to note that the Olympics have become a forum not only for the usual complaints about overpriced hotels and unfair ticket distribution, but as an opportunity to air completely national grievances internationally that have nothing to do with sport. In Canada, special-interest groups pushing native rights and screaming about where to put Toronto's garbage hope to spoil Toronto's Olympic chances.

 During the Sydney Games the global village will be forced to listen to a storm of stories about how badly Australia treated its native peoples and how it ignores environmental issues. The annihilation of Tasmania's aborigines, who were once hunted for sport, has already been marked for special remembrance. And Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, which caused France a lot of grief during its South Pacific nuclear bomb tests, will sail to Sydney to monitor what Australian organizers have labelled "the Green Games."

 Sydney has had other equally predictable, often hilarious problems. Poor Ron Clarke, a former world-record middle-distance runner, burned his arm lighting up the Olympic torch. There was also a debacle and a $1-million, out-of-court settlement after the sudden cancellation of idiotic plans to bring 1,300 teenagers from the U.S. and Japan to march with their bands in Sydney.

 Australia's Olympic Committee, which has not been immune from charges of corruption, embarrassed itself even more when its IOC vice-president arranged for his 11-year-old daughter to be the first Aussie to carry the Olympic flame when it arrived from its permanent home in Greece.

 But that was nothing beside the ongoing controversy about the possibility of a shark attack in Sydney Harbour during the swimming leg of the Olympic triathlon. A shark was caught in the very same waters a few months back. To protect against every Australian swimmer's greatest nightmare, divers with stun guns and electronic repellant devices will swim with the triathletes.

 At least the risk of sharks tearing the Games apart is not something Toronto's Olympic bid planners have to plan for. Nor will be there any need to project 60 medals for Canada if Toronto ever gets the Games. Even a couple of Canadian gold medals in Sydney or Toronto would be most welcome.