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Monday, September 11, 2000

Sydney is buzzed, mate

Sports-mad city stoked for Olympics


 SYDNEY -- The Spirit is strong here.

 Now it could be from the three kilometres of twisted metal shaped to form the Olympic rings and stuck to the Harbour Bridge that stirs up that feeling in some.

 Or just relief from the constant construction that's devoured four million Sydneysiders the past seven years. But mostly, it's just the people.

 And we're not talking about the big names like Bill Gates, Jerry Seinfeld, the cast of Friends (minus Jennifer Aniston, who won't pull herself away from Brad Pitt for a minute these days), what's left of Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), Chelsea Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Rupert Murdoch, and the rest of the Rich and Famous who are all coming here to spend most of their Olympic days partying on super yachts docked in Rozelle Bay. We're talking people like volunteer Kevin Westcott, who lives 41/2 hours away from Sydney in a little farming community, and signed up just so he can meet people from all over the world.

 "We're our own island here, mate, and we know it takes an awful long time to get here," said Westcott, "and because you made the trip, we sure appreciate that, mate."

 You remember the feeling during the Pan Ams? That warm, giddy buzz from playing host? Well, Aussies are jacked-up on that feeling the way many of the Chinese team have been jacked-up on EPO. The Spirit is strong here.

 Even though Sydney realizes a lot of the IOC top dogs would've rather been in Beijing this time around.

 That a harbour city known for a goofy-looking opera house in a country known for kangaroos, dingos, footy and Croc Dundee wasn't the cosmopolitan choice. But they're doing it.

 They're hosting the world, and if it goes the way they want, they just might pull the reeling IOC out of their self-imposed, scandalous ditch.

 This is a sport-mad city. And it's that love, the passion of sport that Sydney hopes will pull these Games through. The big mystery right now isn't how the transport system is going to work. Or whether the security system will hold up. It's who'll light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies.

 Bookies are setting odds on it. Legendary swimmer Dawn Fraser is a frontrunner. But Westcott had the best idea of them all. A unifying idea symbolizing the true Spirit.

 "I don't know what they're going to do, but I reckon what they ought to do is get one of the aboriginal elders out there," he said, "and have him throw a boomerang way up, light the cauldron, and have it come back all lit. Now, if they pulled that off, I reckon that would take some beating, now, wouldn't it, mate.

 "That'd be up there with Muhammad Ali, wouldn't you think?"

 The Spirit is strong. And you can test the Spirit through a person's sacrifice. But we're not talking about IOC prez Juan Antonio Samaranch giving up his posh, room-for-1,000-people president's suite in favour of a paltry $2,000-a-night room at the Regent.

 That's not sacrifice. We're talking about an engineering student volunteer, Keshawn, offering to drive me 25 minutes out of his way so I could get to the out-in-the-boons softball complex.

 He had known me all of five minutes. "It'll be my good deed for the day," he laughed, "to help push forward the Olympic movement."

 Never mind everything he did that day qualified as a good deed.

 This was 6 p.m., and he just finished a volunteer shift that started at four in the morning. Once the Games begin this week, he expects to work a minimum of 16 hours every day.

 He won't see one second of the competitions.

 The biggest event to hit his city, and he'll be huddled in a little room with 25 other guys, watching people file in and out of the venues on TV security monitors. Now that's sacrifice. Torture, almost.

 But the Spirit is strong. So is the security. Each checkpoint rivals the tightest airports in the world. And there's a checkpoint every two feet, it seems.

 It's like going through customs at every corner, and it's the same, boring drill every time.

 Stop. Empty pockets. Hands held high. Beep. Frisk. Open bags. Collect your stuff. On you go.

 A LITTLE AGITATING

 By the eighth time in two hours, it gets a little agitating, but the volunteers are always smiling and cheerful with a 'G'day, mate‰' so it's pretty tough to get too annoyed.

 Already, the local papers have blared headlines like "Safest place on Earth‰" which is a bit premature because one well-placed bomb on the train route would pretty much render the entire transport system immobile and suck the wind right out of everyone's sails like in Atlanta.

 But the Spirit is strong here. They drew 95,000 people to the first of two dress rehearsals for the opening ceremonies. Repeat: a rehearsal. Something like 3.9 billion people in the world have access to these Games through TV, and 3.7 billion are expected to tune in.

 That figure is imprinted on every Sydneysiders' brain.

 Smile for the camera. Be great hosts. Big Brother is watching. The only disappointment so far, it seems, is the free condoms in the athletes village.

 "We were hoping the condoms would have the Olympic symbol or Sydney 2000 on them," said two Winnipeg athletes who wanted to remain nameless on the issue.

 "That way, they'd be a great keepsake, but we were so disappointed. They were just regular Trojans."

 If that's the worst thing that happens here, then these Games will be a success beyond anybody's dreams.

 And if Sydney's showed us anything so far, it's the word "Olympian‰" doesn't always begin and end with the athletes.