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Wednesday, June 7, 2000
Gaffes keep boomeranging Down Under

By JOHN PYE -- Associated Press

 SYDNEY, Australia -- For Olympics organizers, the last few months have been full of "fair dinkum foul-ups."

 That's Australian for embarrassing gaffes.

 But when champion swimmers Ian Thorpe and Susie O'Neill set records at the country's Olympic trials last month, organizers sighed with relief. The focus was finally on what they wanted: the athletes.

 And with the Sept. 15 opening ceremony just 100 days away, it couldn't have come at a better time.

 "Athletes always come to the rescue of organizers," said Michael Knight, chief of the Sydney Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games.

 "I've been saying for years that the stars are the athletes. People aren't interested in the organizers. We shouldn't be a spectator sport."

 Knight has said only a liar could say organizers were not feeling pressure. Who could blame them?

 After completing a $1.92 billion Olympic construction program ahead of schedule, it seems they have had nothing but trouble in the past year. That included budget blunders and a failed ticket plan in which top seats were secretly syphoned off for corporate high-rollers.

 The triathlon test event in Sydney Harbor, the perfect Olympic scene-setter, was overshadowed in April by media fascination with the prospect of a shark attack.

 Then there was the flap over the Olympic torch.

 Kevin Gosper, Australia's top-ranking Olympic executive, was criticized for allowing his daughter to replace an Australian-Greek schoolgirl as the first Australian torchbearer of the Olympic flame after the lighting ceremony in Greece.

 Sydney officials had anticipated the backlash and pleaded with Gosper to decline the Greek committee's offer. His judgment clouded by "fatherly pride," the International Olympic Committee vice president ignored their advice, and organizers were again under siege.

 Compounding all the problems have been complaints from Australians about expected bad traffic and transportation trouble, which could include strikes.

 Knight's reaction to the negative publicity and lack of enthusiasm was a typical Down Under response: No worries, mate.

 That's Australian for "no problem."

 "They're a lot more laid back and low key, less obviously effusive about excitement than people like the Americans," he said. "But don't underestimate the level of deep commitment."

 A national survey in March revealed only 49 percent of Aussies had any interest in attending the games, a drop of 17 percent from a year before. The number of people interested in watching the Olympics on TV slipped 9 points to 82 percent.

 The poll, released before the torch flap, revealed that last year's Salt Lake bribery scandal had hurt the Sydney Games.

 Ten International Olympic Committee members were expelled or forced to resign in the wake of the scandal, in which Salt Lake bidders were found to have lavished gifts, cash, scholarships and other inducements on IOC members and their families before winning the 2002 Winter Games.

 Australia's Phil Coles escaped with a severe censure for accepting excessive hospitality, but he was forced to quit the board of the Sydney organizing committee.

 Despite the problems, sponsors who were reluctant to push the Olympic five-ring logo in March, are now saturating the advertising market.

 The interest should pick up even more when the Olympic flame arrives June 8 at Uluru, or Ayres Rock, in the heart of the Australian outback.

 Major banking sponsor Westpac has floor-to-ceiling posters of athletes adorning walls of its city branches. Billboards advertising hamburger and drinks suppliers have sprung up all over Sydney.

 Newspapers offer ticket order forms and Olympic promotions as organizers sell off the final allocation of 3.2 million tickets.

 Telstra, the telecom provider, and Visa, the official credit card, have launched colorful Australian-themed global advertising campaigns.

 And non-Olympic sponsors are trying to cash in by using high-profile athletes in TV ads.

 Tom Cruise also got in on the act. At the Sydney opening last month of "Mission Impossible 2," he said it was essential that the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House were in the movie's opening scenes.

 Olympics organizers are using those landmarks to feature Sydney to the world on the opening day of competition. They will also project the sun, surf and sand culture of Australian coastal dwellers.

 Even though the Summer Olympics are taking place during the Australian spring, the climate should highlight the outdoors lifestyle. September is usually the country's driest month, with an average temperature of about 68 and light winds.

 John Morse, managing director of the Australian Tourist Commission, said the Olympic exposure is worth billions of dollars in advertising.

 The Olympics will spark a tourism boom, with overseas visitors increasing from 4.5 million in 1999 to 5 million this year, he said. The numbers are expected to grow to 8 million a year over the next decade.

 "The Olympics have already delivered Australia far in excess of our wildest dreams," Morse said.

 Even so, the games will most likely have to endure more bad publicity, including protests by Aborigines.

 Jenny Munro, Sydney's Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council chairwoman, said protests would be peaceful, nondisruptive and in accordance with "black protocol."

 Munro said threats made by Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins of violent demonstrations and burning cars would never happen while she was in charge.

 Strikes by public employees, including police and nurses, remain possible, the Public Services Association said, unless the New South Wales State Government agrees to compensate them for extra work because of the games.

 Bus and train drivers and station staff were expected to strike or refuse to work overtime unless the government agreed to an Olympic bonus.

 The Rail, Tram and Bus Union said the strike would cause gridlock throughout the city and cripple the government's plan to provide 24-hour public transportation.

 "Of course there's going to be problems," said David Richmond, Olympic Coordination Authority chief. "(But) I believe we're on track to deliver the best games ever."

A look at issues that have troubled Olympics

 SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Issues that have plagued preparations for the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Sydney Olympics:

 LABOR UNREST: Strikes have been threatened during the Olympics by some employees, including transport, police and nurses. Bus and rail workers have refused to work overtime unless the government agreed to an Olympic bonus of $172 per week. Negotiations are still under way with 8,000 Public Service Association members, including police and nurses, for an hourly pay increase of $1.72 to compensate workers for additional workload.

 PUBLIC TRANSPORT: There will be an estimated 32 million rail passenger trips in the 17 days of the Olympics on a system that usually carries 12 million people over 21 days.

 ABORIGINAL ISSUES: Aboriginal activists are expected to protest during the Olympics to publicize the plight of Australia's estimated 360,000 indigenous population. Although one has threatened violent actions, Sydney's senior Aboriginal representative, Jenny Munro, pledges the city will be calm and the Olympic schedule won't be disrupted. Australia's original inhabitants are the country's most disadvantaged minority, with the poorest health and education, and highest rates of alcoholism, infant mortality and imprisonment.

 ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES: Organizers promised a "Green Games," but the environmental watchdog Greenpeace has criticized the planned use of refrigerators with hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs. Greenpeace says Olympics sponsor Coca-Cola will have 1,700 refrigerators using HFCs in Sydney and only 100 coolers that comply with the "Green Games" guidelines. Coca-Cola says the cooling equipment to be used at Olympic sites was a "significant advance" in energy efficiency and that commercial drink coolers using alternative refrigerants are not commercially available on a scale required for the Olympics.

 CONSTRUCTION: The construction of a 10,000-seat beach volleyball stadium at Sydney's popular Bondi Beach has continued to draw complaints from residents, who say it will cause environmental damage. Public access to the beach was restricted when a high tide flowed into the perimeter of the construction site.

 A 12,500-seat extension at the swimming and diving venue was finished last month. The project was plagued by strikes because of worker concern over safety and the capacity of steel girders to support the weight of the stand. Engineers gave the extension the OK, pushing the temporary capacity of the venue to more than 17,000. Organizers are installing video screens in the upper deck for fans in the back rows to better see the pool.

 NEW LAWS: Laws imposing heavy fines for illegal parking and non-sanctioned advertising in the Olympic area were criticized by civil libertarians as "draconian." Motorists driving in the wrong lane faced fines of up to $1,340; anyone caught breaching airspace regulations with unauthorized advertisements could be fined up to $152,500. Organizers tried to ban ticketholders from bringing in their own sandwiches, snacks and bottled water -- and thus buy food only from Olympic sponsors -- but they soon backed down after the rules were criticized as a "commercial ripoff" by the national consumer protection agency. Coolers remain on the banned list.

 TICKETS: First, organizers blundered when tickets for top seats were secretly syphoned off for corporate high-rollers. Then, there were several months of delays in giving back refunds to those who failed to get the tickets they wanted. The latest turmoil surfaced when special souvenir tickets were found to be too big to fit in stadium turnstiles. Good news emerged last month: Organizers released for sale more than 3.2 million tickets, across all sessions of all sports.

 ACCOMMODATIONS: Hotel rooms for visitors are still available at prices comparable to those for other Olympics. The Australian Hotels Association says rumors of price-gouging were not true. A program for staying in the houses of Sydney residents still has hundreds of homes available through Ray White Real Estate. The average Sydney home would cost $1,430 per week. In a private deal, the most expensive reported rent in Sydney for the games was about $420,000 for four weeks in a new Balmain unit.

 The Traveland Olympic accommodation program still has one-third of its beds available in a wide range of options. Manager David Farrar says bookings have surged in the past three weeks and doesn't expect anything to be available after July.

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