The Big Splash In Sydney

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Olympic women's triathlon competitors swim through Sydney Harbor

That great 19th-century sportswriter Anthony Trollope observed after his visit to Sydney Harbor, "It makes a man ask himself whether it would be worthwhile to move... to the eastern coast of Australia in order that he might look at it as long as he can look at anything." Got that right, Tony. And on this splendid natural stage the Olympic Games' newest sport, triathlon, debuted on Saturday morning, a splashy beginning to a day of competition that had Australia ecstatic by nightfall. In the evening, swimmer Ian Thorpe, a mere legend at 17 going into the Games, officially became immortal. His performance in anchoring Australia's 4 x 100 freestyle relay team to the gold medal over the cocky Americans became instant history here, a place that, these days, cares about history.

Indeed, the results, in the events and in spectacle, were so good that by Sunday morning the host nation was already declaring victory over the Games of Atlanta. Australia's opening ceremony not only had ceremony but also offered substance in twin dramas of national and international reconciliation. When Aboriginal Cathy Freeman, a favorite in the 400-meter run, crossed a pond of water to light the Olympic flame, she symbolically bridged a racial divide that has tainted and tormented Australia. And during the parade of athletes, the teams of South and North Korea entered as one, two bitter enemies reuniting for sport. Stop the presses: Peace breaks out at the Olympics!

Australia was clearly thrilled to be showing off like this. Sydney had been buffed to a gleam for the Games, and a sparkling late-winter sun shone all week. The "Today" show set up by the opera house to catch sunrises on the harbor and sunsets behind the bridge. Restaurants and hotels filled, athletes sprouted in multicolored warm-up suits, photo ops clogged the botanical gardens. The sunny phrase "no worries," a curious affirmation against doomfulness, was heard over and over, as was a new quintessentially Australian sentiment: " 'Ey, all we 'ave to do is beat Atlanta! Not a very 'igh bar, is it?"

No, it isn't. And the Aussies hoped to pass it quickly by having their big stars get off to a roaring start. Certainly Michellie Jones, the world's top-ranked woman triathlete, was tipped to win this event. And a few of her countrymen, somewhere around 150,000 of them, turned out to cheer her on over the suitable-for-framing course that started with a swim in Sydney Harbor. She looked to be in good shape there — Australian athletes perform best when wet. Plying waters ringed by shark-repelling sonar devices, Jones avoided becoming fish breakfast, then took the lead in the bike race. But she could not repel Switzerland's Brigitte McMahon in the run. The Swiss held her off in a desperate finish after they had traveled a total of nearly 32 miles in two hours.

While most eyes were on the harbor, the first gold medal was awarded elsewhere. It went to an American (no surprise) in women's 10-meter air rifle (huge surprise). Nancy Johnson's dad was "a big hunter when I was growing up in Downers Grove, Ill., and he encouraged me when I joined a juniors program at a rifle club three blocks away." She was 15 then. She's 26 now — and a champion. At another outback venue, the velodrome, Australian cyclist Michelle Ferris took silver in the 500-meter time trial.

Even farther out of town, in Melbourne and Canberra, both American soccer teams were showing that they've got this footie thing down. It was not a big surprise that the U.S. women, defending gold medalists and world champions, beat Norway 2-0, but the ease with which they dispatched the normally tough Norwegians certainly made them gold-medal favorites. The American men were favored to go home early, and yet they fought the Czech Republic (2-2) and Cameroon (1-1) to draws and have a good shot at advancing to the medal round.

With the Yanks and Aussies off to a promising start, the focus turned to the natatorium, where they would hook up in an epic battle Saturday night. "For your information, there's more than two teams in this meet," barked Australian coach Don Talbot before the first event. "This is all media crap! We do not have a strong enough team to beat the U.S." If he was trying to defuse things, the swimmers weren't cooperating. U.S. sprinter Gary Hall Jr. had said of the Australians that he and his teammates would "smash them like guitars." Aussie champ Kieren Perkins responded that he never listened to "drug cheats," a reference to Hall's 1998 suspension for marijuana use.

Round 1 went to Australia: a brutal punch thrown by Thorpe at 400 meteer. In his specialty race, Thorpe lowered his world record and won by something just under a week (actually, by 2.81 seconds, with a time of 3:40.59). Round 2 was just as large a mismatch in the women's 4 x 100-m freestyle relay. Australia, after starting hot, cooled to sixth. The U.S. set a world record, and anchor Jenny Thompson, in superb form, won her sixth Olympic gold medal, moving ahead of speed skater Bonnie Blair for most golds ever by an American woman.

Round 3. The U.S. men hadn't lost the 4 x 100 freestyle since ever, and with a sprinter (Hall) against a middle-distanceman (Thorpe) at anchor, they didn't figure to lose now. But the Thorpedo is special; he's magic. He had the lead, he lost it, he found it again with his very last stroke. Thorpe's swim was, instantly, the greatest in Australian history. As his mates oi-oied, then played a little air guitar on the deck for Hall's listening pleasure, the natatorium rocked with cheers. So did the mansion in Kirribilli, the ranch down in Canberra, the whistle-stop pub on the Indian Pacific line somewhere out in the Great Victoria Desert. A kangaroo looked up and wondered, "What was that?"

Thorpe, a mild fellow for an assassin, said quietly, as if in explanation, "When you race in front of Australians, you don't let them down." What a kid, what a race. What a show this was in Sydney. The land Down Under — big, friendly, sweating, lovable Australia — on top of the world.