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Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Aussies are great sports

  SYDNEY -- Tears clouded Russell Regan's and Nada Kernaghan's eyes and the couple were so upset they could hardly speak.

 Months after they had ordered their Olympic tickets, and hours after Russell had arrived home from England for the Sydney Games, he and his girlfriend discovered after snaking their way to the front of a long queue that their seats had been sold to someone else.

 Russell and Nada would not be going to see Australia's most famous aborigine, runner Cathy Freeman, the favourite in the 400 metres.

 "I just don't believe it! I just don't believe it! It was only a semi-final but we were going to get to see Cathy Freeman live," Nada said, looking off into space in stunned disbelief at their misfortune.

 A few minutes earlier Russell had explained that he had been crying three days before, too, as he watched the Opening Ceremonies on television with a group of Australians in rainy London.

 Thelma Greening and Joy Cann couldn't afford to buy any tickets, but the World War II veterans both travelled several hundred miles to Sydney to soak up the atmosphere, anyway. The octogenarians still consider themselves sportswomen and were prodigiously well informed about what had happened at the Olympics so far.

 The old friends were giggling like schoolgirls because, quite by accident, they had managed to score a pair of free passes which gave them the right to walk around outside the arenas where basketball, baseball, gymnastics, field hockey and swimming competitions were being held at Olympic Park.

 "We're so fortunate to have a chance to see all the excitement for ourselves. This is our first Olympics and we're thrilled," Thelma said as crowds swirled around them shouting the looney national chant: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy."

 Regan's 22-hour flight to watch a sprint that takes less than a minute to run and the ticketless pilgrimage of Thelma and Joy would surprise no one in Australia. The entire country is sports mad in a way that Canadians, for all their love of hockey, simply aren't.

 After the national Olympic committees returned unsold tickets to Sydney organizers last week, they suddenly had another $100 million worth of tickets to sell. On one day last week, $20 million worth were sold and long queues still exist outside half a dozen ticket offices that are open around the clock, selling tickets that generally cost between $150 and $450 each.

 As anyone who has watched 17,000 delirious Aussies in green and yellow cheering on Ian Thorpe and his teammates every night at the Olympic pool knows, swimming is more popular in Australia than anywhere else. The immense popularity of swimming is clearly connected to the fact the country is surrounded by water. One of the first-time Olympic sports, the triathlon, attracted crowds of 170,000 to both the men's and women's events over the weekend. Surfing and beach volleyball are hugely popular, as are sailing and sailboarding.

 As crazy as Australians are about Olympic sports, and as fabulous as their athletes are at so many of them, the real national obsessions are six professional sports. Cricket has long been Australia's No. 1 obsession, but Aussie Rules football, rugby union and rugby league all have fanatical followings, too. So do horse racing, tennis and, in certain pockets, field hockey.

 "I think our love of sport comes partly from the weather and partly from all the space we have," said Shannon Green, who was lined up to buy three relatively inexpensive baseball tickets for herself and her parents because the tickets to swimming, track and gymnastics were sold out.

 "We grow up in an outdoor society with a lot of beaches, parks and playing fields. Sport is a huge part of our school curriculum. You're really considered a dork in Australia if you are not into it."

 Australia's burgeoning Olympic medal tally and its awesome passion for sport suggest that this distant island continent may be the least dorky place on the planet.