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Wednesday, July 26, 2000
With 50 days to go, indifference in Sydney over Olympics

 SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- A young couple kisses in the sand, a few yards from the giant shell of the unfinished Olympic beach volleyball stadium. Joggers splash past, oblivious to the hum of huge machines driving posts deep into the ground.

 On Bondi Beach, where six protesters buried themselves neck-deep in the sand in May, a security guard yawns as kids play and tourists dip their toes in the Pacific. Waves lap at the edges of "Stephen I luv U," carved in the sand.

 There are no Olympic banners or signs nearby. Store windows feature notices of garage sales, not of the Sydney Games. It's business as usual at the Russian Roulette restaurant.

 Thursday marks 50 days to go until the Sydney Olympics. Does anyone here care?

 "People from overseas are more excited. People here are not that excited yet," says Maria Nori, who works at an ice cream shop on Bondi Beach. "I'm excited because I love volleyball. But I haven't heard anything here about the Olympics."

 In stark contrast to Atlantans, who were Olympics-obsessed months before their games in 1996, Sydneysiders generally are indifferent right now.

 Part of that attitude may be due to the laid-back Australian temperament. And there's no need for panic, since almost all Olympic venues have long been completed -- again, a sharp difference from Atlanta at this stage four years ago.

 Sure, the Olympic torch relay is generating interest as it winds through the country. And Sydney newspapers are full of stories about Olympic preparations, such as hotel workers demanding big bonuses during the games.

 But most people are far more interested in their favorite Australian Rules football team, or this weekend's international rugby match against South Africa, than in a sporting event nearly two months away.

 Atlanta was abuzz with Olympic excitement with 50 days to go. Vendors jockeyed for prime spots to sell T-shirts and soft drinks, while Olympic flags fluttered from light poles. The upcoming games dominated talk at lunch counters.

 In downtown Sydney, there are few Olympic billboards. Buses have their usual advertisements for banks and candy bars, unlike the huge ads featuring Olympic stars such as Michael Johnson that plastered Atlanta buses.

 Sydney Olympic officials completed nearly all of a $1.92 billion construction program well ahead of schedule. Thousands of visitors have toured the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which already is being used for rugby and other sports.

 In Atlanta, with 50 days to go, officials still were fretting over the completion of 12 new competition venues in time for the Olympics.

 Some Sydney residents plan to escape during the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Olympics. A survey for Ansett Airlines showed more than half a million Sydneysiders, about 14 percent of the city's population, plan to go somewhere else during the games.

 At Bondi, where protesters tried to block construction of a 10,000-seat stadium they feel defaces one of the country's best surfing and sunning spots, the attitude is decidedly low-key.

 A sign outside the Bondi Road Art Supplies store complains, "Bondi Beach is under martial law" and decries the fences and security guards now closing off much of the beach.

 But most visitors seem more interested in the white sand and the bands of seagulls scavenging for scraps.

 Even Aboriginal leaders, who had threatened to disrupt the games with protests, now say they want to use the Olympics as a way of publicizing their cause. Many of the nation's 386,000 Aborigines complain of discrimination and of being treated as second-class citizens in a land they once ruled.

 At a tent city set up outside Sydney University, Aborigines such as Isabell Coe say their main purpose is to increase public awareness of their plight.

 "Most Aboriginal people love their sport, but they're angry about what's going on in this country," says Coe, a member of the Wiradjuri tribe. "They know there's nothing they can do to stop this, they know the Games will happen. We just want people to hear our stories."
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