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Monday, October 2, 2000

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  SYDNEY --The river of lightning coursing 12 1/2 kilometres from Olympic Stadium to Sydney's scenic harbour Sunday was a pure and fitting finale to the Aussie Olympics themselves.

Hodgepodge, sparkling, inexorable, the thousands of sets of pyrotechnics spaced 500 metres apart led to the greatest fireworks display in history. It was a fitting counterpoint to the largest but most laid-back Games in history.

The bar has been raised. This cannot be repeated, nor should it.

"The worst thing Athens could do is try to copy that," a fan leaving the packed 110,000-seat stadium said. "You don't want to get compared."

No, you don't. Not with this one.

The bottom line on the Aussie success was stated rather forcefully when outgoing International Olympics Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch proclaimed "I am proud and happy to say you have provided the best Olympics ever."

No kidding.

You had at least 120,000 people packed into the Stadium. There was an estimated one million at the harbour.

They were connected by the river of lightning that lit a serpentine line to the harbour for a finale never seen before. The connection between Australians and their Games was unmistakeable.

A host of international pyrotechnics teams worked weeks in setting up a 25-minute explosion of rainbowed harbour light that turned night to day for the entire city with an ear-jogging, eye-boggling display of utter incredulity. There has never been anything like the smorgasbord of sight and sound.

The stadium show was a knockout, the follow-up of organizers' pledge to wind up with a bang. It began with a rather silly schtick of people chasing a guy on a small all-terrain vehicle but quickly warmed up.

High in the air, an Australian Air Force F11 streaked across trailing a long tail of fire.

By means of suspension from wires, it was a show that covered every square metre of the place. People and giant figures descending from space, rock stars materializing on stage, Aussie favourites model Elle McPherson, golfer Greg Norman and actor Paul Hogan jumping into the fray; it was a wild party.

"Paul was a fitter on the (harbour) bridge," an Aussie chap said. "That's why we love him."

It is not a place where pretension is suffered gladly. Australia is an infectious party place and the athletes on the field fell right into the mood.

Athletes from Africa and the middle east seemed a trifle bemused by the insanity around them, but when you saw a group of China rocking and showing victory signs, you caught the international signficance.

What are the Olympics if not a celebration of youth and hope? There was enough of both to walk on.

You heard it in the cheers when the union of the two Koreas was mentioned by Samaranch. You saw it when athletes from Uzbekistan to Samoa were joined in an impromptu conga line.

You felt it when the hosts graciously cast their eyes toward Athens with an extended best wishes that included everything, including a Trojan Horse.

It was a giant party, with giant balloons, giant dolls and a cleverly orchestrated presentation of professional dancers that got everyone on their feet.

The closing ceremony pretty well reflected what the opening one promised: enormous crowds, enormous sites, enormous potential for disaster that somehow always worked in a fun way.

Australia grew some here, grew like the little girl central to the opening ceremony had grown, in the same costume, into the beautiful woman borne in on a surfboard.

A giant ball descended saying "Bye from Oz, See Ya in Athens."

Sure will.

CANADA'S MEDAL WINNERS

GOLD

- Simon Whitfield, men's triathlon

- Sebastian Lareau and Daniel Nestor, men's doubles tennis

- Daniel Igali, 69-kilogram freestyle wrestling

SILVER

- Nicolas Gill, men's 100-kilogram judo

- Anne Montminy and Emilie Heymans, women's platford synchronized diving

- Caroline Brunet, women's K-1 500-metre kayaking

BRONZE

- Curtis Myden, men's 400-metre individual medley swimming

- Anne Montminy, women's platform diving

- Buffy Alexander, Laryssa Biesenthal, Heather Davis, Alison Korn, Theresa Luke, Heather McDermid, Emma Robinson, Lesley Thompson and Dorota Urbaniak, women's eights rowing

- Karen Cockburn, women's trampoline

- Mathieu Turgeon, men's trampoline

- Catherine Garceau, Claire-Carver-Dias, Erin Chan, Fanny Letourneau, Jacinthe Taillon, Jessica Chase, Kirstin Normand, Lyne Beaumont and Reidun Tatham, team synchronized swimming

- Steve Giles, men's C-1 1,000 metre canoeing

- Dominique Bosshart, women's 67-kilogram-plus taekwondo