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Friday, September 29, 2000

It's about money, not medals

 SYDNEY -- Although I have a pal with Sports Illustrated, I was unable to snare an invitation to one of three $1-million parties hosted by the magazine during the Olympics.

 Sports Illustrated takes great pride in its journalism, but media were not welcome at their soirees. Their Olympic ideal was to bring together Olympic champions with corporate schmoozers.

 Another friend, whose wife is a vice president for a big American corporation, was agog at what he saw when the IOC's senior vice president, Canada's Dick Pound, invited him into the Millennium Marquee. My friend, who comes from mega-money himself, said the opulence of a few of the corporate suites within the marquee was staggering. Equally stunning was the amount of security these worthies received so the common sports fan would not disturb them as they told each other lies.

 The biggest star in town has undoubtedly been Cathy Freeman, Australia's sensational 400-metre runner. Her chief rivals for this unofficial title were Muhammad Ali, who for all his physical problems seems to have made it to every party going, and Bill Gates, who slept on his own yacht and made his way to and from the Games on a private barge, rather than mix with the masses who had to get around by rail.

 Gates had the best tickets to everything and enough pull to meet privately with this year's version of U.S. basketball's Dream Team. But like most Yanks in Sydney, the gawky redhead seemed happiest simply waving Old Glory and shouting "U-S-A, U-S-A."

 The second most revered American billionaire, General Electric's Jack Welch, dispensed business advice and granted a select group of Australian millionaires a private audience. IBM supremo Louis Gerstner is entertaining hundreds of guests at a time on board the ultra-luxurious Crystal Harmony, which had a prized berth between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

 Many Australians want to dump the monarchy and with good reason. The media here treat homegrown media baron Rupert Murdoch and his extended family as if they were royalty.

 Two of the champion freeloaders who have stuck their noses in everywhere were First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Clinton was at the pool most nights. She was reportedly asked for an interview by a child journalist for Sports Illustrated while she was going to the toilet.

 Howard has the impressive knack of getting to almost every Australian gold medal performance. As the cameras roll, he always manages to squeeze the athletes' mothers and give them a big kiss.

 To the disappointment of almost everyone over the age of 10, McDonald's paid millions to be the official hamburg of the Olympics. There are five McDonald's restaurants at the Olympic Park and two in the Athlete's Village.

 At the main press centre, McDonald's has by far the most space in the dining area, although few journalists want to dine beneath the Golden Arches. Alas, there will be more Big Macs in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Athens in 2004. McDonald's is to be the official burger there, too.

 Australian Olympians such as swimmer Ian Thorpe are to receive up to $4 million in sponsorships and fees after winning gold medals. Some corporations here have spent that and more for private dining rooms and lounges and for stacks of tickets they didn't want and haven't used simply to have a few good seats for their CEOs and key customers at glamour events such as swimming and gymnastics.

 I met a young Englishwoman who had been flown in from London just to organize parties for an Australian company. Her specialty was getting corporate big shots to drop by for a few minutes. Twelve days into the Games she still had not witnessed a single Olympic event.

 There has been a lot of the usual nonsense in Sydney about the Olympic spirit and the joy of sport. What the Olympics are really about are big bucks and the access and exposure that big bucks buy.