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Wednesday, September 20, 2000

The best Games ever?

  SYDNEY -- It's early innings yet, but there may never be a better Olympics than the Sydney Summer Games.

The home team is excelling. The facilities, almost all of which are new, are superb. Crowds have never been bigger. Sales of Olympic junk have never been better. The television ratings across the country have shattered every record by millions of viewers.

After some initial hiccups, the much maligned transport system is performing well beyond expectations. In the five days since the stupendous Opening Ceremonies there have only been two traffic jams reported in normally traffic-choked Sydney. One tie-up occurred in a distant suburb. The other happened as 100,000 people all tried to leave Olympic Park at exactly the same time on opening night.

Protests by Aborigine activists and anarchists who style themselves as environmentalists have fizzled. Threatened walkouts by bus drivers never materialized. Often ornery trade unionists are behaving like lambs.

Thanks to the mass withdrawal of some Chinese drug cheats, there have thankfully been few drug scandals so far. In weightlifting a Romanian and a Norwegian were given the boot, a Ukrainian shotputter was banned for steroid use as was a member of Kenya's 1,600-metre relay team.

There has not been a cloud in the skies for days and the weather has turned much warmer, so the thin-skinned Canadian hacks in the media village no longer have anything to gripe about. The Australian dollar has even chosen this moment to crash, making the capital of New South Wales a little more reasonable for foreign visitors who have been subjected to the usual Olympic price ripoffs.

Even the taxi drivers, who thought they were being cut out of the lucre by the free Olympic rail system, are fairly happy. Their business is booming and the many Yanks in town actually tip, unlike Australian clientele.

More than 20,000 cops, security guards and soldiers are on duty. But the crooks are evidently as enthralled by the Olympics as their law-abiding compatriots. The crime rate is at the lowest level in decades, so those who enforce the law don't have much to do except work on their tans and break up the occasional fight between drunken Australian revellers at the half-dozen places in town where thousands of people without tickets gather to watch Olympic events on big screen TVs.

The only ugliness I have seen didn't involve any Australians. At a field hockey game in which Pakistan throttled Britain 8-1, a group of several dozen Pakistani fans celebrated their team's success by chanting "God is great," in Arabic. A few British spectators who apparently got lost on their way to a soccer match after refreshing themselves from all the main food groups responded to the chant by loudly shouting a two-syllable racial slur occasionally heard in English playgrounds. The Pakistanis defused the situation by laughing off the insult, much to the relief of the lone police officer who monitored the potential riot.

A chum of mine who is a senior editor at one of the local newspapers said Sydney 2000 was running so smoothly it was becoming an embarrassment. There was almost nothing bad to report and the jingoistic hyping of Australian athletes was getting a bit tiresome.

There was a brief flurry because a fellow who prints up accreditation had made himself souvenir copies of the identity cards of eight Australian athletes, including Ian Thorpe, the swimming sensation. What he didn't know was that by doing so he automatically invalidated the computer codes in those athletes' ID cards so they couldn't get into the athletes' village. Charges are pending.

However, Australia's luck and journalists' fortunes may be changing. The biggest hard news story of the Games was the brief kidnapping yesterday of two Korean officials by a pair of spirited young lads who had just escaped over a barbed wire fence from a minimum security jail.

There are clouds on Sydney's horizon. A pair of distant puffs in the sky were caused by bush fires that have suddenly sprung up because of the unseasonably warm, dry spring weather. So a brief spot of rotten weather would actually be very welcome. Just in the nick of time a cold front from Antarctica that has been promised for several days may actually come ashore, bringing with it a little rain.

Not to worry. At this point, one third of the way through the Sydney Games, it would take a hurricane to break the spell the Lucky Country has cast over the world.