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Monday, October 2, 2000

Fair dinkum Oz, fair dinkum

  SYDNEY -- The hero of the Summer Olympics was a city, not an athlete. The face of the Games was a smiling volunteer. The feeling that will live with me forever is one of absolute joy.

 These were the Games of Sydney, in this postcard of a place, in a city so alive with spirit and sport. To say G'day and so long to Sydney now and sing one last chorus of Waltzing Matilda won't be easy or unemotional.

 Throw out the long list of Canadian disappointments, the loony disappearance of Marie-Jose Perec, the unending stench of a drug scandal, and what you're still left with are the most remarkable Summer Games in recent memory -- maybe the most remarkable Games ever.

 Everywhere you went there was laughter and smiles and fun. Everywhere you went -- it didn't matter if it was track and field or table tennis -- there was a full house cheering for Australians. Cheering for the rest of the world that isn't American.

 "We just can't believe the Olympics can be this good,'' IOC member Dick Pound said at the halfway mark of the Games. And then they were this good, beginning with a sparkling opening ceremonies, ending as all Olympics do with tears and dancing hugs and fireworks.

 Every Olympics is like a novel unto itself, unfolding chapter by chapter, written only for you, taking you places you never thought possible. And at the end, the visual montage is all yours: the pictures of Simon Whitfield at the beginning and Daniel Igali dancing with his flag at the end, meant all that Canada missed was some kind of middle to take your breath away.

 Cathy Freeman took Australia's breath away. She ran up the stairs of the Olympic Stadium carrying the torch; it was a sporting gesture symbolic for a nation searching for its conscience. The world watched and Australia began the process of making peace with itself. The Olympics, done right, can be that powerful.

 There were so many gold medals awarded here, but none more meaningful on a global and national scale than the one awarded to Freeman, the Aboriginal runner, with all of Australia watching on television.

 For Canadians, the best moments of the Olympics came on the second day of competition and on the last, when two different athletes from British Columbia, from the same province but different worlds, managed golden celebrations in winning their sports. Both cried, both danced, both embraced the flag.

 That's what we always remember about the Olympics. That's what we didn't see enough of.

 They were the proud Canadians and, in between, the walls came tumbling down. Combined, Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin didn't sprint 100 metres when it mattered most.

 The swim team, the boxing team, the rowing team -- the staples of Olympics past -- came up short or empty and forever blaming. The men's basketball team, so proud and so close, broke our hearts. The defeats made the victories of Igali and Whitfield and the tennis pair of Daniel Nestor and Sebastien Lareau all the more delicious.

 In the end, this was an Olympics for both winners and losers and sometimes it was difficult to tell which was which. When a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea named Eric Moussambani barely managed to complete the 100-metre freestyle, having never actually having gone that distance before, he became the everyman of these Games: portrait of a loser as hero. Typically, in today's media-mad world, he is now a hot commodity in the sponsorship game.

 Also hot at these Olympics were female athletes, posing clothed and half-clothed and downright naked for magazines and books all over the world. This was a side of women's sport never seen or celebrated before, a new direction of selling sex and the athlete. The new champion of the field is Australian pole vaulter Tatiana Grigorieva.

 So what will I remember as I pack to leave Sydney? I'll remember a Games that worked and that by itself is a compliment. These were Games for children, smiling wondrous children at all the venues, and games for people who wanted to smell and taste and be part of an Olympic experience. It is an impossibility to put on a Summer Games with style and grace and spirit yet Sydney managed the impossible.

 And late on Sunday night, when journalists from all over the world gathered -- cynical people, most of us -- stood and toasted Australia and sang a brave, enthusiastic, off-key chorus of Waltzing Matilda, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.