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Friday, May 12, 2000
Gosper: today's ugly Australian

By JOHN PYE -- Associated Press

  SYDNEY, Australia -- The nation's senior Olympic official referred to himself as "today's ugly Australian" in the wake of the torch relay controversy that has sparked outrage locally.

  The Australian media featured allegations of cronyism and nepotism within the International Olympic Committee today, two days after the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony at Ancient Olympia in Greece.

  Kevan Gosper, an IOC vice president, came under harsh criticism when his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, became the first Australian to run with the Olympic torch in Wednesday's flame-lighting ceremony.

  A 15-year-old Australian-Greek student, Yianna Souleles, had been expected to be the first Australian to take the flame from Greek high jumper Lambros Papacostas. But, at the invitation of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, Gosper's daughter was a late selection for the prestigious spot.

  Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kieren Perkins said the last-minute switch was "insane."

  "I don't understand it ... I just shrug my shoulders, shake my head and say what the hell is SOCOG doing," said Perkins, the world record holder at 1,500 meters freestyle, as he prepared for Saturday's Australian Olympic swimming trials.

  SOCOG, the Sydney 2000 organizing committee, has constantly been under attack for issues ranging from its handling of Olympic tickets to proposing strict rules about what food the public can take into Games venues.

  But this time SOCOG was not to blame. The organizers had been hoping the lighting of the flame would launch a wave of community enthusiasm and pride for the Sydney Games.

  Even its harshest critics admitted Gosper must have ignored warnings from senior SOCOG officials, including Olympics Minister Michael Knight, about the potential public backlash.

  Gosper said his position had no influence on the Greek committee's decision and, in accepting the offer, he was looking after the best interests of his child.

  He said there was no intention to bump anybody out of the prized relay spot and he never made "any move to put my child in a preferential position."

  Gosper said his daughter was an Australian and had every right to accept the generous gesture, adding: "Who was I to take that away from her?"

  But, for the third straight day, the Australian media carried scathing condemnation of the nation's most senior Olympic official.

  Sydney's tabloid Daily Telegraph devoted its entire front page to a blistering attack featuring a bold, six-line headline playing on the letters of Gosper's name.

  The headline, to the left of a photo of Gosper, spelled out Gosper from top to bottom in the first column but, reading from left to right, it said: "Greedy, Obstinate, Selfish, Pompous, Egotistic, Ruffian."

  An accompanying report said the IOC delegate had acknowledged that the public perceived him as "today's ugly Australian."

  Federal opposition leader Kim Beazley described the situation as a "colossal misjudgment" but said Australians should just "get on with" enjoying the buildup to the Games.

  Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the nation risked being "hooked on Olympic gaffes" if the focus on negative issues continued.

  "Do we have to all the time get focused on these things rather than what a tremendous, uplifting event the Olympic Games are going to be?" he said.

  Souleles did carry the torch later Wednesday in Greece, but New South Wales Premier Bob Carr said he would look into the possibility of giving her another chance to join the relay in Sydney.

  After its journey through Greece and the Pacific, the torch will arrive June 8 at Uluru -- otherwise known as Ayres Rock -- in central Australia to start the 100-day countdown to the Sept. 15 opening ceremony in Sydney. About 11,000 people were expected to be involved in the torch relay around Australia.

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