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Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Athletes wait nervously for their big moment

 Click, smack, thump. The pool balls toss off an aggressive rhythm amid the pounding beat of rock music competing with the whirrs, bells and whistles of nearby video games.

 Edginess reigns in D-Day-minus-two at the Olympic Athletes Village on Sydney's outskirts.

 They're all ready.

 "Oh, yeah, we're all thinking the same thing," says Canadian freestyle swimmer Rick Say after a slam-bang snooker game with teammate Brian Johns.

 "I wish we were going right now."

 The pool is on green felt, not water, and throughout the athletes international centre people from Belarus to Botswana are thinking the same thing -- their moment is arriving, what all have strived for pretty well all their young lives.

 The Athletes Village rises up in the Sydney suburbs like a sun-dappled Pueblo town. In a few weeks, the athletes will be gone, their hopes and balcony flags replaced by young suburbanites vying for an apartment.

 Meantime, they wait.

 "Waiting is the hard part," Say's pool partner Rick Johns observes.

 "Yeah, we've been here a week and we're ready to race," adds Say.

 Their edginess can be translated into a hundred languages. Nearby, a fellow with Polska emblazoned on his back nearly rips the steering wheel off a car-racing game. His Polish teammates roar at his simulated auto race.

 Tiny gymnasts from Latvia negotiate their way through giant weight-lifters from Russia in a three-week society none will ever forget.

 Throughout the village, 10,500 of the world's best athletes wait. They know the day and time of their first event, and the moment where success will take them for their second. One supposes every single one of them would say the same thing as Say.

 "Let's go," he says. "If I had my choice, my race would be right now. I'm ready. We're all ready."

 Nearby, Kris Westwood wonders if any level of preparedness is perfect. He's with the Canadian cycling team support staff, a mechanic.

 "Ready? Oh, yeah," he says of both bikes and their riders. "There are a ton of things to be considered, especially if they have new equipment but they're all resolved."

 The bike at this level is as refined as a Swiss watch. Each rider has his or her own particular preferences as to set up and a millimetre here or there translates as a metre to some.

 They want perfection in their equipment. Westwood implies the demands are not unlike those of a prima ballerina.

 "But they appreciate the help," he says. "Unlike European teams, most of them aren't used to this kind of assistance. Riders like Tanya Dubnicoff (1999 Pan Ams sprint champion, third at the world championships) are happy with it."

 Westwood feels Canada has three strong medal chances, two more possibles. He won't identify his predictions.

 Out on the village plaza, a choir of Australian tots are entertaining, their youthful voices echoing across a sea of athletes clad in a rainbow of team warm up wear.

 In the computer room, e-mails hum home and the lineup extends to the door, their hopes and fears spanning the globe to friends and loved ones.

 They wait. The world waits. The clock has become an albatross for those whose entire lives comes down to a few precious seconds.

 "You tell yourself a few days rest will make you go faster," says Say. "But the fact is, you want to go now. We're ready."

 So is Australia and the world. The countdown continues.