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Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Now this is an Olympic city

  SYDNEY -- The cab driver looked at me with fear in his eyes. "What are you doing?'' he screamed, holding on to the door.

 I thought I was getting in the taxi.

 He thought I was about to rob him.

 This was my introduction to Sydney -- this lovely, sunny and cool Olympic city, where we always know what time it is but never what day. Where a North American can easily be confused by cars that drive on the other side of the road -- and the right side of a cab is for drivers, not passengers.

 There are already some important things to know about Sydney, just a few days before the Summer Olympics begin.

 Our Games motto, early on, is "Look right or die.'' Everyone I know has almost been hit by a car in his first days here. One Nigerian runner, who didn't look right, was hit by a car and killed a few days ago.

 That isn't the only early difficulty in this place, which is holding a Summer Olympics in spring temperatures that sometimes feel like winter. If the cars won't get you, the animals might.

 Two people I know-- and I don't know that many here -- have already been attacked by magpies walking on the yards of their living quarters.

 "It hurts,'' said Jackie Skender, an official with Rowing Canada, who was assaulted by a feisty bird. "The only advice I was given was, cover your eyes and I did that. But I've got to tell you, those things are relentless.''

 If the birds don't get you, the snakes might. Yesterday, the Danish cycling team was practising when the largest snake any of them had ever seen made its way onto the course.

 The cyclists, for the record, were not amused. "One thing is for sure,'' cyclist Jimmi Madsen said. "I'm not getting off the bike to piss anymore. If those are around, I'll just stay on my bike and wet my pants.''

 So far, though, the only kangaroo sighting has been on menus. I haven't seen one, but I've eaten one. And after eating one, my impression is Skippy makes a much better peanut butter than a burger.

 Animals aside, this is a spectacular city -- picturesque in design, with a waterfront Toronto would die for and traffic we already know. This seems as far away as the 20 hours of airline flights from Atlanta, the pathetic host of the last Summer Games.

 Every day here, you're reminded how much this isn't Atlanta, how hard Sydney is trying to make this Rubik's cube called the Olympics work, how it feels like the Olympics even if the temperatures don't.

 In Atlanta, the Coca-Cola was free but the living wasn't easy. Here, it's two bucks a bottle but you don't mind paying the helpful, friendly faces.

 In Atlanta, before the Games began, troublesome Cobb County was put on alert, told to behave or else.

 In Calgary, before the Winter Games began in 1988, the police went around and locked up the homeless to clean up the place. Here, the Australians have asked the topless sunbathers at the beach volleyball venue to cover up during the Games.

 Truth is, my new definition of the Olympic spirit is anyone hardy enough to go topless in these temperatures.

 The Canadian team may blame the weather for a less-than-sterling performance here, but don't buy it. This is probably the weakest team Canada has sent to a Summer Games in many years.

 The best hope for gold, kayaker Caroline Brunet, doesn't race until the final day of the Games, meaning there is a possibility of no Canadian gold medal before that.

 The first week may turn off television viewers with a particularly lean lineup of medal hopes. The biggest Canadian names here -- Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, Joanne Malar, Marianne Limpert -- are no sure bet to win anything.

 I'm ready for the Games to begin, even if I still haven't figured how I've lived through Tuesday before you've finished Monday. At least I know which side of the cab to get into. The rest, I'll figure out later.

 And the best thing about these Games is that the Olympic preparation has been so acute that the organizing committee has left little to chance.

 They have so rehearsed for this show that one day not long ago, they asked 10,000 volunteers in various venues to synchronize their watches and, at the right moment, flush the Olympic toilets at once.

 The test was a success.

 The Games should be as well.