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Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Games within the Games
SYDNEY -- There are the Olympics you see and the Olympics you don't.

One is for the fan willing to part with $10 or $20 for a distant seat at a preliminary event simply to say he or she was at the 27th Olympiad, or pay hundreds of dollars for a so-so ticket to one of the more popular events.

The other Olympics is for what the IOC calls its "family" and the mostly American corporate sponsors who grease the wheels that keep the world's biggest party rolling.

As I went off to queue with spectators for a hugely expensive chili dog and a $3.50 bottle of water before Canada stunned Yugoslavia in men's basketball, I walked into an area strictly off-limits to the public and chanced upon an open door guarded by an armed policeman. Through the door I could see a small group of men and women, mostly in blazers or suits, dining at beautifully laid out tables choked with fine food and drink served by swarms of waiters and waitresses assisted by a gang of hand-picked interpreters and fixers. The copper just shook his head in disgust at the scene.

It's hard not to know that some are more equal than others at the Olympics. The IOC's rigid caste system is displayed on every one of the tens of thousands of accreditations strung around tens of thousands of necks at every Games.

Frankly, journalists don't have much to complain about. We are among the luckiest people at the Olympics. Unlike the public, who must pay as much as $1,382 for a ticket here, hacks have an "E" and an infinity symbol on their identity cards which grants them free entry into every event, except a few finals they can probably still get into anyway with a free ticket.

The media, like all the volunteers and paid workers, also get free public transport, although this is not quite such a gift as the trains and buses in Sydney are sometimes unreliable and often drop passengers off in inconvenient places.

As good as journalists' laminated Olympic IDs are, they have nothing like the oomph or prestige of cards embossed with the letters "IOC" or other acronyms indicating the many different tiers of accreditation handed out to sports federations and the Olympic movements' wealthy sponsors. Such cards grant automatic entry into a parallel universe of grand hotels and parties, free top-end lounges and restaurants, the best seats in every house and an around-the-clock limousine service which uses a private road network at the Olympic Park.

The IOC insists it has reformed and is now squeaky clean, but the perqs it bestows upon itself and its friends have enraged the public in every host city for decades.

Many Australians are unaware of the network of restaurants and lounges purpose-built so the IOC has a place to play during the Olympic fortnight, but they know about the hotels and parties and can see the cars out on shopping excursions with members of the IOC family or buzzing along the private roads as they trudge from stadium to stadium.

All of the above goes totally against Australian notions of fairness. But what irks them far more is seeing huge numbers of top seats going unused at every venue except swimming.

It was the same story at Canada's thrilling basketball match with Yugoslavia. Perhaps 20 of the 500 seats reserved for the IOC and honoured guests were occupied in an otherwise jammed stadium.

Worse yet, the artistic director of the brilliant swimming dream sequence near the beginning of the Opening Ceremonies told me the other day that until the very last moment she didn't know if she would be given a ticket to watch her creation as it thrilled a global TV audience said to number more than four billion souls. As it was, she ended up being seated three rows from the top of the Olympic Stadium while thousands of IOC seats for the most sought after event of the Games went unused.

No organization as powerful, as rich and as expansion-minded as the IOC will ever win many hearts and minds. But that doesn't explain why the IOC doesn't think it worthwhile to try and win the respect of a country which loves the Sydney Games and has made them such a triumph.