By STEVE WILSTEIN -- Associated Press
SYDNEY, Australia -- A sleepless, manic, magical energy runs through every Olympics, a 16-day-and-night rush of speed, strength and surprises in 30 places at the same time.
At the 2000 Sydney Games, that energy will be pumped up a notch.
This is a $3.5 billion bash in a beautiful booming city, a celebration careening from Olympic-central at Homebush Bay to party-central at Darling Harbour, from the billowing sails of the Opera House to the blond sand of Bondi Beach.
It's a Summer Games in Australia's spring and the Northern Hemisphere's fall, vernal and autumnal equinoxes colliding in the middle, every visitor trying to figure out what time it is back home.
It's swimmers in neck-to-ankle bodysuits sleek as sharkskin, divers warding off real sharks with sonar signals in the first triathlons, and triathletes swimming-cycling-running through a panorama of postcard scenes.
It's the Olympics embarking on its fourth millennium from the Peloponnesian War, still bringing enemies together, uniting this time at long last at the opening ceremony Sept. 15, North and South Koreans.
It's 10,200 athletes of every color and class from 199 countries, winning and losing by hundredths of a second, hundredths of a meter, a point in double overtime, the difference between gold and silver the difference of a lifetime and, sometimes, millions of dollars.
It's 3.7 billion people watching 'round the clock on television, keeping up in the papers, tuning in on radio, surfing the Web, and millions of Australians with a special love of sports filling the seats at stunning new stadiums and arenas.
It's anthems and medals, tearful triumph and utter heartbreak, stories of sacrifice and courage, drug tests and cheating, worries about breakdowns, and always, always the fear of bombs and bullets.
It's Australia's reputation on the line, art and dance on display, Aboriginal protesters having their say, commercialism under control, shrimps on the barbie, and beer, beer, beer.
It's not about kangaroos or koalas, boomerangs or "Crocodile Dundee," though there's plenty of stuff for sale to feed fantasies while dining on barramundi, donning an Akubra, and playing a didgeridoo.
It's a feeling that will sweep through Sydney, as it does every Olympic city no matter how many problems precede the games, that is "not just a buzz or a warmth," as Olympic historian Harry Gordon observes.
"It sounds crazy, but they're like a bliss which spreads across a community, even a tough community like Sydney," he said.
On a track designed for speed, it's America's Marion Jones going for five golds, Australia's Cathy Freeman hoping to stop her, Maurice Green trying to stay the world's fastest man, Michael Johnson coming back from injury, and Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor getting a reprieve after testing positive for cocaine.
In a fast, world-class pool, it's Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, transformed this year from mediocre to six-time world record holder, taking on the challenges of Americans Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and Amy Van Dyken.
Average age of those four: 29 -- nearly twice as old as U.S. breaststroke flash Megan Quann, who brashly predicts South African Olympic champion Penny Heyns is "going down" in the 100.
"I'm going to be there, race my heart out and win that gold," she said.
It's the "Thorpedo" -- Australia's Ian Thorp -- age 17, size 18 barefoot flippers, with countrymen Grant Hackett and Michael Klim in a bid to seize the medals that Australians most covet. Standing in their way: Americans Tom Dolan, Gary Hall Jr., Neil Walker, and Anthony Ervin, the first swimmer of black heritage to make the U.S. team.
In gymnastics, it's Svetlana Khorkina, the Russian who wept when Kerri Strug's vault sealed the American team's gold in Atlanta, now back to face down threats from another American, Elise Ray, as well as a 16-year-old Romanian, Andreea Raducan.
It's Bela Karolyi coming out of retirement last fall to take over a U.S. women's team that fell flat at the world championships, saying now, "It's like the sky and the earth. It's a big difference. A very big difference."
For the men, it's the return of "Sexy Alexei" -- Alexei Nemov -- winner of six medals at Atlanta, and the arrival of American Blaine Wilson, he of the tongue bar and four tattoos, toned down a hair from his bleached-blond, pierced-eyebrow, motorcycle-riding days.
It's another Olympics where Cubans and Americans duke it out in boxing and baseball, where NBA and European pros reorganize along national lines, where Andre Agassi plays again while Pete Sampras stays home, and Grand Slammers Venus and Serena Williams take their sister act to the games.
It's Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes straight from the WNBA, and speedskater-turned-cyclist Chris Witty, out to become the first American woman to win medals at the Summer and Winter Olympics.
It's Lance Armstrong, weakened by raging but undetected testicular cancer in Atlanta, seeking his first Olympic medal after winning his second Tour de France.
It's Dr. Dot Richardson, her medical training done, back on the softball diamond with perfect-game pitcher Lisa Fernandez, and a Mia Hamm-led American women's soccer team that looks a lot like the one that won the World Cup a year ago.
It's Steve Redgrave, a 38-year-old English rower trying to become just the second Olympian to win gold in five consecutive games, and Tara Nott, a 28-year-old American who switched from gymnastics to weightlifting to win her first ticket to the games.
It's a Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin, who hasn't lost a match in three Olympics and nine world championships, and a Turkish weightlifter, Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot-11 "Pocket Hercules," coming out of three years of retirement to go for a fourth gold.
And it's Yueling Chen, a 1992 champion race-walker for China, competing now for the United States, thanks to a last-minute appeal and waiver.
"I can't even imagine what I will feel like during the opening ceremonies in Sydney," Chen says. "I think I will be superexcited."
There are stories everywhere and deadlines to meet all the time all around the world, a media mob of 15,000 pumping out news in every language 24 hours a day, searching for that special moment that will define these Olympics.
Everything you ever wanted to know, or didn't want to know, about the games will be online somewhere in bytes and sound bites as Olympians soar into cyberspace.
You'll hear the usual questions about who's going to light the flame, all the cliches about Olympic dreams and nightmares, quests for gold, pixies on the parallel bars, piranhas in the pool, all the numbers about medal counts, tons of food consumed, garbage hauled away, and debts left over.
The world will discover Sydney is big and bold, laid-back and friendly, chic and pricey, a city built by Irish and British convicts, rebuilt by their descendants, and constantly changing with new waves of Asian immigrants. It's fish 'n' chips, Vegemite, and chicken satay.
You'll learn how Homebush Bay was transformed from an industrial wasteland to a sports paradise, an ecologically sensitive "Green Games" that saves on energy, spares the Green and Golden Bell Frog, but still doesn't quite please Greenpeace.
These Olympics were 10 years in planning, pushing, hoping, building, they've come through scandals and strikes and petty politics, and when the 16 days and nights are over, a hangover will set in as it does after every games.
In Sydney, it just might be a tad more intense.