Essay: Jumping for Joy Sydney's Games restored faith in the Olympic ideals, thanks to wonderful athletes and a welcoming and well-organized host city By STEVE WATERSON

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The best olympic Games ever!" With the infamous exception of Atlanta in 1996, Juan Antonio Samaranch's words have become a familiar coda to Olympic proceedings. The departing International Olympic Committee president's compliment has sometimes seemed to have all the sincerity of the well-mannered guest's: it's just his way of saying goodbye.

But on Sunday night, as the drag queens wiped off their make-up and the last fireworks sizzled into the Harbour, there was an overwhelming sense that Sydney's Games had indeed been a triumph; a demonstration that with hard-headed goodwill it is still possible for the world's biggest international event to transcend sordid politics and squalid commercialism, and deliver a taste of the Corinthian spirit to jaded palates. Despite the danger that the antics of a few cheats, profiteers and liars might sour the experience, almost all of those involved, from athletes and organizers to the Australian people, conspired to cement the smile on Samaranch's face.

The athletes, as always, were the stars of a show that Dick Pound, I.O.C. senior vice president, called "the Games from central casting." And it was heartening to see crowds riveted by performances that rarely-outside the pool, at least-threatened world records. Many of those fantastic records, of course, were set in an age of systematic drug use, particularly by the communist states of Eastern Europe; they seemed distant and irrelevant as the battles in Sydney unfolded. It may be premature, and perhaps na´ve, to think that drugs are on the way out, but it seemed that many of the champions were there through psychological rather than pharmacological determination. Athletes' bodies looked fit and strong, but not superhuman, which is how we prefer them: there is a special pleasure for all the other 38-year-old men in the world in noting that British rower Steve Redgrave, with gold medals from five consecutive Olympics, has the suspicion of a middle-aged tire inflating around his waist.

So no world records in the stadium, but extraordinary performances. Invested in advance with more significance than any footrace, or athlete, should be asked to bear, Cathy Freeman's victory in the women's 400 m was the highlight of what even numb old sports hacks were calling the best night of track and field ever. More than 100,000 spectators saw Michael Johnson conduct the first successful defense of a men's 400-m Olympic title; they watched tiny Romanian Gabriela Szabo hold off Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan in the final straight to snatch the 5,000 m by a quarter of a second; and they marveled at the ferocity of Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie's final sprint to crush his Kenyan rival Paul Tergat after 10,000 grueling meters.

Other days had their moments, too: last Friday saw four years' work by the Games' greatest "certainty," Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, end in silver as Kenyan Noah Ngeny outstrode him in the 1,500 m; and on Wednesday Glory Alozie ran bravely into second place in the 100-m hurdles just days after her fiance, Hyginus Anugo, another Nigerian athlete, was hit by a car and killed crossing a Sydney street.

Spectators were moved by courage and excruciating effort; the times didn't matter. While we've hardly returned to the days when Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, could say without irony, "The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well," it is perhaps dawning on athletes and their coaches that people will enjoy an apparently lower level of achievement if the competition is clean, exhilarating -and fair. For sportsmanship made a long-overdue return in Sydney. Despite the fierce pride of Australian swimming fans, they were warm in their appreciation of international champions, and the competitors matched their generosity. As the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband stepped to the dais to collect his gold for the 200-m freestyle, the applause was started by local hero and silver medalist Ian Thorpe, who told reporters: "I was beaten by a great athlete." Gracious tributes were paid, despite ancient rivalries, all over the city's sporting venues. The handshakes, compliments, smiles and tears humanized and ennobled the athletes and endeared them to the world. The occasional triumphalist posturing, notably by some Americans, suddenly looked very 1980s, and was greeted with contempt.

What the people enjoy they will pay for. After the scandals and farce of mismanaged allocation and releasing of tickets in recent months, more than 87% were sold, eclipsing Atlanta's record 82%. That so many spectators were able to enjoy the Games live was a credit to their organizers, particularly in the transport division, which doomsayers were predicting would collapse under the weight of visitors. Far from collapsing, the rail and bus system, ruthlessly excluding private cars from making any useful approach to the venues, proved so efficient that many Sydneysiders will be sorry to see the city return to normal.

The numbers were mind-blowing: on the second Saturday of the Games, more than 400,000 spectators were brought painlessly to Olympic Park; the following day Sydney Harbour ferries carried 80,322 passengers, passing a record that has stood since Federation Day, Jan. 1, 1901. And behind the planning, the models and flow charts, stood the rows of cheerful volunteers, almost 47,000 of them, pointing, guiding, singing, joking, their enthusiasm always keeping to the right side of the line between infectious and infuriating.

But above all, the 2000 Games were a victory for the people of Sydney. There had been cause enough, as I.O.C. bribery scandals twisted and corrupted the Games' ideals and greedy infighting shamed local officials and politicians, for Australians to turn away in disgust. Instead, they rose above the venality and drew on the nation's ingrained tradition of hospitality to ensure that visitors and athletes felt welcome.

The crowds at Olympic Park were patient and good-humored; elsewhere, no one seemed to mind that tourists had the best tables in all the restaurants; on commuter trains, workers stood cheerfully amid the throng. In central Martin Place, at Darling Harbour, in parks and plazas, the city gave itself over to spontaneous celebration with enormous goodwill: as one Glasgow-born taxi driver observed after a night shift ferrying partygoers from the city center: "They're as drunk as New Year's Eve, but there's nae fightin'."

So before the scramble begins to grasp the credit, and before the hangover kicks in, Australians can allow themselves the quiet satisfaction of knowing that they have thrown the best party on the planet.