By ROB GLOSTER -- Associated Press
SYDNEY, Australia -- The Opera House shimmers on placid waters. A ferry slips silently under the majestic Harbor Bridge, escaping the gaze of tourists gossiping at a dockside cafe.
Deep beneath tranquil Sydney Harbor, sharks lurk -- far from sight.
The scene is idyllic yet potentially threatening -- just like the Olympics that begin in less than a month.
On the surface, Sydney is ready to welcome the world. All the Olympic venues are complete, and the city is eager to show itself as one of the world's financial and cultural centers.
Possible problems await, too. Aborigines say they'll protest during the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 games. Train derailments and airport blackouts have outraged Sydneysiders the past few months. The Summer Games are set for Australia's early spring, so rain might make things messy.
And although most people are excited about the arrival of 10,200 athletes and the world's attention, many think Sydney would be just fine without a two-week extravaganza that will clog roads and restaurants.
"I find myself regarding the Olympics as a gigantic annoyance, something that will disrupt my life and force me to leave town," columnist Anne Summers wrote recently in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Unlike four years ago, when Atlantans smothered their games in enthusiasm and commercialism, Sydney residents are typically laid back about Australia's first Olympics since the 1956 Melbourne Games.
A few minor scandals turned some Aussies against the games. The International Olympic Committee projects 78 percent of Australians will watch the games on TV, a lower figure than in Ireland or Lithuania.
But interest has grown as the Olympic torch tours Australia. Thousands of spectators have lined the route at nearly every stop, from the remote outback to an underwater stint at the Great Barrier Reef.
"The torch relay is touching people in a real, unfiltered way," said John O'Neill, ticketing communications manager for the Sydney Games. "There had been a lot of concentration on politics and controversy."
Sydney, a city of 4 million nestled between the Blue Mountains and Pacific Ocean, boasts some of the world's most striking architecture. Though 27 years old, the Sydney Opera House remains a design wonder.
The new 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium, host for the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events, is the largest in Olympic history and another marvel of modern design.
Darling Harbor offers trendy restaurants with an Australasian touch. A monorail speeds tourists and businessmen between downtown skyscrapers.
Yet Sydney also has its quaint side alleys and beachside suburbs. A short train ride leads to nearly untouched hillsides and caves.
Australians are far from the bawdy characters featured in "Crocodile Dundee" movies. There are no kangaroos or koalas roaming downtown Sydney, and there are more Frisbees than boomerangs on Bondi Beach.
Sure, Aussies enjoy "shrimp on the barbie" and their brand of Australian Rules Football makes the U.S. version seem tame.
But sophisticated Sydney is a tolerant, multiracial community with a gay community rivaling San Francisco's. The annual Mardi Gras would make many New Orleanians blush.
They do speak a slightly different language Down Under, mate. Coffee with milk is a "flat white." And slot machines, found on nearly every corner, are "pokies."
Following a $1.92 billion construction program, most of the Olympic venues were completed months or years before the games. Most are based in Homebush, a former industrial wasteland about 30 minutes west of downtown Sydney.
At Bondi, where a handful of protesters buried themselves in the sand and vowed to block construction of a temporary 10,000-seat beach volleyball stadium, the facility was completed by late July.
Ticket sales were slowed by budget blunders and a failed ticketing plan in which top seats secretly were siphoned off for corporate bigwigs, leaving more than 2.1 million tickets still unsold in early August.
Olympic officials hoped a last-minute TV advertising blitz would help sell many of those remaining tickets.
Other logistical problems also threaten to torment the games.
Two power outages at Sydney Airport in recent weeks caused massive delays and cast doubt on the ability of the airport to handle Olympic crowds that are expected to include 111,000 international visitors.
There have been 31 train derailments this year in New South Wales, the state of which Sydney is the capital, including six in recent weeks involving drivers trained specially to cope with Olympic traffic.
Police have been monitoring anarchists and other groups that have talked of disrupting the Olympics. The most likely source of protests during the Sydney Games, though, will come from Aborigines.
Australia's original inhabitants, Aborigines now are a troubled minority of 353,000 mostly impoverished people. They are beset by substance abuse, poor health, little education and crime.
Though some Aboriginal leaders have called for violent protests, most view the Olympics as a springboard to publicize their plight.
One Aboriginal group plans to ring Sydney Airport with sign-carrying protesters in the days leading up to the games, while another group has set up a tent city in a downtown park.
"The feeling is there shouldn't be an Olympics here," said Isabell Coe, who is organizing the tent city in Victoria Park. "The Olympics is supposed to be about peace, and there's an undeclared war against Aboriginals for 212 years."
The Sydney Olympics will set records for participating nations (199) and athletes (10,200), and the addition of triathlon and taekwondo brings the number of sports to a record 28.
The games are expected to generate up to $3.8 billion in direct economic activity in Australia, but tourism officials are even more excited about the prospect of an additional 1.6 million visitors between 1997 and 2004 as a result of the Olympics.
Above all, officials see the games as a chance to showcase Sydney.
"You are witnessing a transformation of this city," said Bob Carr, premier of New South Wales. "We are one of the great successes of nation building, and the Olympics is a platform for us to explain this to the world."