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Monday, September 11, 2000

Silent summit Down Under

SYDNEY --  At the summit there is no noise, only sun and stillness, breath and heartbeat. The internal voice you hear is that of a placid, welcome stranger.

  Everything you see shimmers in perfect clarity. And while you pledge to commit every detail to memory, you could no more forget this than your own name.

  This is what it is like atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge at 8 a.m. For $150 (Australian), Bridge Climb Sydney will guide you to the precipice, with its view of the Sydney Opera House, the deep blue Sydney Harbour and a glimpse, perhaps 15 kilometres away, of Botany Bay.

  It is the closest you can get to heaven with the breeze in your face, maybe the closest a non-athlete, puffing slightly after climbing 1,309 steps, can come to the stillness of the moment of being in the blocks or the ring, or whatever personal altar Canada's 306 Olympic athletes will step into.

  Altogether public, the next step is nonetheless astonishingly private, and fate sits both over the horizon and in the Olympians' hands -- in the form of baton, javelin or volleyball.

  At Botany Bay, English explorer Thomas Cook leaned to a young midshipman named Isaac Smith and ordered him out of the rowboat with the words, "Isaac, you shall land first." Smith waded into a hostile reception from spear-carrying indigenous people. That was on April 29, 1770.

  Everything that has happened in Australia since grew from Smith's first step and not all of it has been good. The tribesmen would be diverted by shots from Cook's rifle. It would be subjugation and for many, annihilation.

  Eighteen years after Smith's tentative strides, Australia would become the repository for 736 British convicts, mostly men, all deemed guilty of property crimes in an era of unyieldingly harsh statutes and magistrates. The Fatal Shore, considered the best version of Australia's settlement, notes the convicts included an 82 year-old rag dealer, who would hang herself from a rubber tree in Botany Bay, and a 13-girl who had stolen a linen gown and a silk bonnet.

  America, Britain's preferred destination for the unlucky members of its permanent criminal underclass, had been lost to the American Revolution. Australia was and is the only country in the world settled for use as a prison colony. As such, she is a Petri dish from which to study culture -- a modern and well-ordered city and country has arisen as much out of toil and vision as conquest and injustice.

  Humanity, of course, is what the Olympics sells and there is plenty of it here. On the same day a local paper carried a story of Olympic sultan Juan Antonio Samaranch storming out of a site tour because he had been forced to wait 10 minutes for transport, the local media chronicled Anlloyd Samuel, a 19-year-old swimmer from the tiny Pacific island of Palau, a kid who cuts through the water like an inner tube.

  When Raptors star Vince Carter accidentally knocked over an official and nearly came to blows with an Aussie player at an exhibition game, the crowd showered him with a chant he had never heard: "Carter's a wanker."

  There is a marvellous sense of the different here, among the shining new venues and a world standard infrastructure that renders the thought of the Toronto Games a school-child's lark.

  And while the Canadian team approaching the summit is considered the weakest since Seoul, people seldom find the expected when they step on to a new shore.

  After the athletes' moments of perfect stillness, we will ask them what they saw and felt.

  They will do their best to tell us, but it will be a struggle for both subject and chronicler. At the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, you learn two things: No language can describe the summit and no one comes back to earth exactly the same person as when they left.