SEARCH 2000 Games

Wednesday, September 13, 2000

The worst job in Sydney

  Paul Willoughby is a fortyish Australian who looks a lot like U.S. presidential candidate George W. Bush.

 The difference between the two men is that sometimes in the near future, George W. Bush might have a good day.

 Paul Willoughby will not.

 Willoughby is the minister of motion, the director of the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority, a body set up after athletes pirated buses in Atlanta in order to get to their events on time.

 Had the archery or shooting teams been allowed to bear arms, Atlanta would have been bloodied worse than it was by Gen. Sherman.

 In Atlanta, the principals of the men's 100-metre final were loaded into the same van and driven from the practice track to the Olympic Stadium. That van ride stood as history's biggest stare down since Shania Twain went back to Timmins for her high school reunion.

 The stench of Atlanta still was thick when the Australians and IOC devised the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority, an all-powerful transport dictatorship that works so nicely when there are mountains to be moved but if you are looking for someone to blame when your bus does not arrive, you will blame Paul Willoughby.

 Imagine a rail system stretched to 21/2 times its normal limits and a bus network with 700 new drivers who started last weekend. Imagine a city in which public parking is virtually banned, with fines boosted from $65 to $348; a city in which major arteries are physically commandeered.

 Imagine that cows could fly. Now imagine you were stuck in the middle of their puny meadow with no more protection than the little parasol plucked from your pina colada.

 If you are Paul Willoughby, you need not imagine.

 He smiles brightly when asked how many hours he slept the night before.

 "Got four," he said. "Best in a long time."

 When was your last day off?

 "Uh ... I don't know."

 When is your next day off?

 "Uh ... I don't know."

 What has been the biggest screw up so far?

 That is an easy one. Earlier in the week, lame duck IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch had to wait 10 minutes for a car to take him on a site tour. Journalists, fans and even athletes invariably will be kept waiting over the next three weeks.

 But Samaranch must not.

 He cancelled the tour and it falls within Willoughby's purview to carry Samaranch on his back and gallop through the Olympic village rather than let the commander in chief wait for even the slightest moment.

 "That was an unfortunate one," Willoughby said. "We apologized to the president but in any system there will be teething pains."

 This is why you should like Paul Willoughby, even pull for him as you would a member of Team Canada. He stood up Samaranch and didn't much care.

 "You don't want a mistake on that one," he said. "But ultimately, there are other people to transport as well. Our main responsibility is to the athletes."

 Yesterday, Willoughby closed his news conference with these words:

 "Have a great Games and hopefully this will be our first and last meeting."

 If Samaranch has to wait again, Paul Willoughby will get his wish.


 Now I now how Shania Twain feels.

  Australians of all ages and gender are going nuts for Canadians.

 In fact, the number of overt come-ons is alarming and they come from the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times.

 Yesterday, I asked for directions from a young, male store clerk.

  Me: Pardon me, can you direct me to the Central train station?

 Australian store clerk: Turn left at the next block and you're sweet. Mate?

 Me: I beg your pardon?

 Clerk: Next block, turn left. Mate?

 Me: Mate?

 Clerk: Yes.

 Now, I am as open-minded as any married father of three but I headed for the door. And it isn't just store clerks who are struck by our potent Canadian sex appeal. People proposition us in their very greetings but at least they don't seem offended by our rebuffs. They just keep asking.

 Me: Good morning.

 Train engineer: Good morning. Mate?

 Me: I have to go now.

 Engineer: No worries. Mate?

 I remind myself it is spring in Australia and most here have not encountered Canadians before.

 But I also must ask. What is this gift we have?