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Friday, September 15, 2000

Too good for the Games?

SYDNEY -- Toronto the Good is bad, because in this context it means boring.

Toronto the Bad is good, because it means the city has the kind of pizzazz that will endear it to the members of the International Olympic Committee charged with choosing where to stage the 2008 Summer Games.

John Bitove, who heads Toronto's bid for the 2008 Games, thinks a big reason Sydney won the Olympics which open today is that Aussies, and Sydneysiders in particular, are perceived as fun-loving and daring. What could cost Toronto a chance to have the quadrenniel five-ring circus aren't the technical aspects of its bid, which are unarguably first rate, but the perception that Canadians, and Torontonians in particular, lack sizzle.

"We've got to change the outdated attitude that Canada is just clean and stable," Bitove said the other night at one of many receptions he and the 80-strong Canadian delegation have been attending on the eve of the Sydney Games.

"Older Canadians feel this way, and are happy about it. Young Canadians have a much different view, and the world should know it. We're trying to reposition the world view of Canada with receptions and functions that emphasize how much Canadians like to party."

The notion that others think Canada is a snooze inspired the wacky idea of having an almost lifesize model moose as the centrepiece for a party in a swank nightclub on ultra-cool Darling Harbour last night. Luminaries such as Aline Chretien, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and Ontario Premier Mike Harris sang Toronto's praises and boogied with international sports worthies against a stunning backdrop of neon glitz and a cavalcade of funky people.

I want to know. Would Ontario tourism officials be able to readily provide foreign journalists with the names and addresses of a wild S&M club and a batch of brothels, as representatives from the New South Wales tourism ministry did without a moment's hesitation at an official function the other day? And would Toronto invite a group of notoriously provocative drag queens to cavort before a television audience of as many as four billion people at the Closing Ceremonies of the Games, as Sydney intends to do on Oct. 1?

Given the Canadian mania for blandness and political correctness, the answer to the two questions above is an emphatic "No." That's why old ideas about Canada's biggest city die hard.

Two rather senior European sports journalists who have seen the Toronto bid's top players in action over the past few days in Sydney visibly winced when I asked their opinions. The more charitable of the two, an Englishman, paused for the longest time to measure his words before saying, "They are such nice people but they are very naive and seem to have a very shallow knowledge of the world." The other, an urbane, multilingual Italian, just grinned and shook his head derisively.

At Bondi Beach, where Sydneysiders live up to their larger-than-life reputation for having fun every single day, Rob Brander, who moved to Sydney from Pickering seven years ago, watched yesterday as thousands of Australians went crazy with pride and joy as the Olympic torch was escorted out of the Tasman Sea and across the sand by several hundred life guards.

"It's not that I'm anti-Toronto, but what is so special about that city?" asked Brander, who lectures about tides and beach erosion at a university here. "Toronto really is no different than 20 other North American cities while Sydney, with the water culture, the sunshine and the dramatic geography and architecture, is truly one of a kind.

"Compared to what the people of Sydney have all around them, Toronto's Woodbine Beach doesn't cut it. Absolutely nothing in Toronto comes close to the nightlife here in Bondi and lots of other places around Sydney. You know, the only trouble with Toronto is that it's too nice."