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Saturday, September 16, 2000

Does Toronto have this kind of Olympic spirit?
SYDNEY -- A walk around Sydney Olympic Park, where there are 11 major athletic facilities all within 10 minutes by foot, you stop and marvel at the scope of what these Games can be.

You marvel and, at the same time, you wonder: Can Toronto do anything of this magnitude? Anything even close to this?

That came to mind here Friday night and again Saturday morning as the Olympic opening ceremonies turned, finally, to athletic competition. That came to mind watching 100,000 people at the stadium for the ceremonies, politely lined up afterwards at the overcrowded train station, without pushing, without shoving, without argument.

Just happy to be part of an event of this magnitude, to experience the enormity the Olympics can bring and the gift it can provide a city and a country with.

I stood in the lineup outside the train station two hours after the opening ceremony with a colleague from Toronto. And as Friday night had already turned into Saturday morning, both of us couldn't help but wonder aloud about the Toronto bid for 2008 and the possibility of successfully pulling off an Olympic Games.

Does Toronto have that sense of community, that volunteer spirit, that need to show itself off and cloak itself in the way the Australians do here?

Can Toronto shed itself of its cold cynicism and its what-can-you-do-for-me attitude, not only for the 17 days of the Olympic Games but for the years leading up to it?

Sense of country

Downtown here on Friday night, away from the crowded station, hundreds of thousands of Australians watched the opening ceremonies on huge television screens. Many held hands. Many cried. The sense of country, community and accomplishment was everywhere.

I wish I could tell you I believe Toronto is a wonderful choice to host the 2008 Games. I wish I could, but having lived through eight Olympic Games, having seen what Sydney has managed and what the people have supplied, having experienced the absolute magic of the most exuberant opening ceremonies these experienced Olympic eyes have seen, I don't know if it's possible.

I don't know if I even want to try.

It isn't only the facilities here and the one-time aboriginal swamp land that makes up Sydney Olympic Park. It isn't only the Australian feel -- these are Canadian-like people with a far greater national pride. It is a little of everything, the feel, the texture, a sense of warmth that cannot be easily translated with words.

Sydney has already done that: Could Toronto -- and never mind the screaming hyperbole of Mayor Mel Lastman's meaningless meanderings -- do anything even close?

Is it our way? Is it our nature to be giving? Is it our nature to give up our cars and open up our homes and volunteer our time? How do you know if it's never happened before?

On Friday night at the Olympic Stadium, my eyes were open wide and my heart was racing and my step seemed a little faster, a little more enthusiastic. A stirring opening ceremonies can do that for you.

This wasn't one moment, such as Atlanta, with Muhammad Ali standing holding the Olympic torch with shaking hands. This was three hours of joy and spirit and celebration and as John Huxley wrote in his Sydney Morning Herald column, it was a show "that made Australians feel happy about themselves and the world feel happy about Australians."

"The genius of the opening ceremonies was saying so much about us so clearly to the world, yet leaving so much that was just for us," wrote David Marr in the same newspaper.

When you look around Sydney, not at the beauty of the harbour or breathtaking Opera House, but at its downtown streets, it looks so very North American with its McDonald's and Subways and Kentucky Fried Chickens. But then Friday night happens here, and you realize this isn't North America -- that the sensibilities are different, the sense of country is different, the belief in this show is different.

With too many sports and too many athletes, the Summer Olympics always begin as an impossibility, a massive puzzle of tiny pieces, scattered everywhere, with built-in details and pitfalls. But the Games begin here with the feeling that everything is as right as it's going to be or can be.

The feeling was right before the opening ceremonies. The uplifting display of Friday night was a spectacular beginning to what should be a spectacular Olympic Games.