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Saturday, September 16, 2000
These Aussies sure can party

By MATTHEW FISHER -- Sun Columnists At Large
SYDNEY -- Some day, some country, somewhere will produce a more creative, more energetic, more breathtaking, more original Olympic Opening Ceremony than Sydney did yesterday.

But it may be a very looooong time in coming.

Australia styles itself the Lucky Country. Based on last night's extravaganza, the boast is spot on.

The message which Australia wanted to deliver to the world wasn't complicated: "Aussies have fun, oi, oi, oi."

That was certainly true and then some yesterday during the rollicking four-hour Olympic festival. After a brief, dignified bow to the Aborigines, most of the program took on a gentle, mocking tone. Australia's history as an open-air prison for Britain was celebrated as was the country's obsession for the beach, colourful summer wear, quarter-acre lots and sausage sizzles.

The Olympics are the focus of so much attention for a brief span of time that comparisons with English Canada are probably unfair. But as I watched the Australians strutting their stuff before the world yesterday, I became more and more envious of the way they have been able to develop their own distinct culture, vocabulary and humour. Meanwhile, English Canada hardly stretches its legs as it tunes in more and more to New York, California and Florida.

Protected by the oceans which surround them and treated abominably by the Mother Country, Australians forged their own identity in much the same way French Canadians have had to do to survive within a sea of English speakers after being abandoned by France.

I can't explain how I came to be so blessed, but I witnessed the Olympic spectacular from a $1,312 seat only three rows up from the Stadium Australia floor. Even if I had paid for my free ticket, it would have been worth it.

Whatever anyone's vantage point, it was universally agreed among my 100,000 seatmates that the star of the show was 13-year-old Nikki Webster. The singer, actress and Grade 8 student with Shirley Temple tresses and nerves of steel spent the first half hour of the Olympic spectacular swimming and tumbling while dangling from a cable 45 metres in the air over the centre of the field.

Fashion show

As superb as Webster and her dignified Aborigine guide, Djakapurra, were, what I am a sucker for at the Olympics is the diverse fashion show that is the parade of nations. The African states and a few micro-states in Oceania always look distinguished in their long, dazzling robes. So do the all-male Kuwaiti and Saudi teams.

Viewers at home probably didn't here the wolf whistles, but the unlikely star of the athletes' walkabout in Stadium Australia was a lithesome young Tajik woman whose green velvet skirt was slit up well past her right thigh.

The Timorese team walked behind an Olympic flag as it entered the stadium. I'm still waiting for the Kosovars to march at all. Maybe next time, in Athens in 2004, there will be a Chechen team, too.

Koreans from North and South marched together behind a special flag of unity. It was easy to figure out from which of the Koreas the athletes came. The southerners laughed a lot. A few even whooped it up. The northerners were poker-faced. The crowd loved it. Maybe they didn't notice that the two sides did not speak to each other.

That was no surprise. What wasn't expected was that more than two-thirds of the team from Nelson Mandela's sports-mad South Africa would be white.

The only mild aggravation of the opening evening was that it took so long for the athletes from 199 countries to do their laps of honour. If the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia hadn't broken into so many pieces, the Olympic flame could have been lighted and everyone could have gone home happy half an hour earlier.

But that is a Canadian speaking. The Australian crowd would have been pleased to stay up and party with its visitors all night long.
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