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Sunday, October 1, 2000

Good on ya, mates

 Here's the good news: Sydney had the best Olympics ever. And the bad: Sydney had the best Olympics ever.

 Now that the echoes are fading from this captivating fortnight of elite athletic endeavour, now that Sydneysiders and the rest of a rapt world can return to normal, an evaluation is in order.

 It merits a true five-star rating. The world and even some Aussies said it couldn't be done, that trying to compress 28 sports, almost 11,000 athletes, 60,000 volunteers, more than 20,000 media and millions of spectators into a period just over two weeks was impossible.

 But they did, bless 'em. The organizing committee and its leadership, slagged for improper payments to International Olympic Committee members to secure the Games, sullied by its own media regularly in the run-up to them, in the end did a marvellous job.

 Too marvellous.

 Record ticket sales, record receipts, records everywhere you look and Sydney winds up with billions of dollars in improvements from a completely modernized infrastructure to enough new sports, entertainment and transit facilities to make the world's mayors' eyes glisten.

 But with that success comes a horrible reality. The IOC, having never shrunk from projects when others are implementing them, will not be able to resist the urge to make Sydney the benchmark for Athens in 2004.

 And the Greek capital won't be up to it. Already dread is being expressed by Athens-watchers. Already there is talk that if the site of the original modern Games cannot do it, Seville, Spain, and Seoul, South Korea, are worthy alternates. There's some talk Sydney might shoot for a double.

 "I'd be back in a heartbeat," said one volunteer at the tennis centre. "We all would. We're tired after 11-hour days but this has been the experience of a lifetime. Sure I'd like to see it all over again."

 Others around the various venues echoed those comments. There's less chance the Australian government would want them again.

 The only thing blocking a move from Athens is the recalcitrance of the IOC, a body not known for admitting blunders.

 At the beginning of these Games, the head of the Athens organizing committee, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, spoke of the Olympic flag being passed proudly to Athens. One can only wonder what the Greek organizing committee can think after the Australians managed to carry off a tour de force in what is a decidedly over-large undertaking.

 They managed it, although you could not escape the feeling one more person or one more event would have brought the overburdened affair crashing down around everyone's ears.

 Why were the 2000 Olympics so successful in spite of the mountain of hurdles inherent in the new and bloated Games?

 Joy.

 This, remember, was a nation, not only a city, committed to the Games. Australians are not known for flinching in the face of a challenge and they took this one on with trepidation tempered with plenty of nationwide resolve. It was Sydney's Games but also Australia's Games.

 The scope was mind-boggling. It was essentially planting all the citizens of, say, Kitchener inside Toronto to help run all the pro sports leagues of North America simultaneously while bringing in the rotating populations of Detroit and Montreal to watch.

 This, with hundreds of television networks and dozens of languages and a transit system that could handle a half-million people at a pop.

 Quite aside from the national pride of taking the world's centre stage for almost three solid weeks, Australians are sports-minded people. They were into this thing body, mind and soul.

 Where people in Atlanta were host to one more big event, where the grim citizens of Moscow had to endure the largest influx of non-wartime foreigners into their midst, the people of Sydney shouted, "G'day, come on in."

 Not all was rosy. Opening and closing ceremonies at more than $1,200 a pop for top seats? Soft drinks at $3.50? Fleabag hotels looking for a year's profits in under a month?

 In that respect, the Sydney Olympics were like any other Olympic Games. Market forces dictate the prices.

 Sydney and Australia wound up big winners by comparison to past Games. Had Atlanta managed to get the 1996 act together a bit more tightly, maybe Sydney wouldn't have looked so good. It earned these people plenty of marks in the media.

 Possessed of more than its share of cranky folks to start with, long hours and frustrating delays tend to erode the goodwill of the most even-tempered of reporters. That's where Atlanta took it in the neck.

 Over-hyped, commercialized to a ridiculous degree, completely out of control in terms of transit, the Atlanta Games got an international thumbs-down from an outraged media as the days wound down. The front page of a major Italian newspaper said it all in full-page type: "Scandale."

 Dispatches from Australia have been generally positive, filled with accolades for the beauty of Sydney and its breathtaking harbour. The Olympics have truly been a travel ministry's unmatchable dream.

 Consider the numbers. Research from the United Nations and the world advertising industry indicates that of 3.9 billion people with access to television, 3.7 billion watched some part of the Olympics.

 "No event in the world offers the coverage or reach the Games provide," said Montrealer Dick Pound, chief IOC TV rights negotiator.

 In the end, the organizers took an impossible task and did it well. In so doing, they've condemned the people to whom they've passed the Olympic flame.

 G'Day, Athens. And good luck.