Here Come the Ozlympics

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A young man plays guitar near the entrance to Circular Quay, a ferry terminal that nudges right up to the city's skyscrapers. Around him, casually dressed people sit at outdoor cafes soaking up a Sydney Sunday afternoon. At the ferry ticket office, a man answers the request for directions to the right boat in a laconic Australian drawl: "Dunno, mate. She might be that one over there." As the ferry departs, a white cruise ship gliding under Sydney Harbour Bridge hoots imperiously. To the right, the Opera House is gilded by the last rays of sun, its curved roof complementing the smaller sails on yachts triangling across the harbor. Most cities tart themselves up terribly to host an Olympic Games; Sydney is so naturally beautiful, the aim must be simply not to spoil what the gods gave it.

Away from the waterfront, the city has its bleak suburbs where poverty, crime and drugs wreak their universal havoc. But most visitors to the Olympic Games that start on Sept. 15 won't see this underbelly. The main venue, at Homebush Bay, about 15 kms from the bridge, is a wide open, 760-hectare site that will host more than half the 28 Olympic sports. Here, the organizers did not so much have to tart up the landscape as dig it up. Once its main structure was the state slaughterhouse, where up to 20,000 animals were dispatched daily. For years the site was also an uncontrolled waste dump. Before any sport could be considered, 9 million cu m of waste had to be bulldozed. Planners made a virtue of necessity and the waste is now arranged in huge grassed-over mounds that bump up out of the flat site like giant green breasts.

Green is the organizers' watchword. All buildings on the site, including the main 110,000-seat stadium and hundreds of new houses and apartments that will be the athletes' village, are eco-friendly, utilizing as much solar energy and natural ventilation as possible. Elsie Hasting in multicultural Australia, it is unremarkable that the media guide is a Peruvian-born American, or that the taxi driver who takes you there is one of the country's 200,000 Lebanese migrants says that since the site began its transformation, dozens of bird species have returned, and the population of an endangered variety of native frog has doubled. The frog just happens to be green and gold ... Australia's sporting colors.

As with most ceremonies, lots of things can go wrong before the big day. Many of the would-be local guests are angry that tickets have not been shared out fairly, a sin in egalitarian Australia. News that a large chunk had been earmarked for clubs and wealthy buyers has been followed by a string of other ticketing snafus, the most embarrassing of which being that the tickets as designed won't fit into the slots in the turnstile machines.

There are also problems involving control of performance-enhancing drugs, made worse by the arrest last month of a scientist at the New South Wales Academy of Sport for allegedly importing the banned anabolic steroid DHEA via the Internet. At the same time, other scientists at the nation's Institute of Sport are rushing to try to have an effective test for the blood-boosting drug epo ready before September one that will convince the i.o.c. that it would stand up in court if an athlete challenged disqualification.

The most serious threat comes from sections of Australia's aboriginal community, furious over the federal government's handling of what is known as the stolen generation, meaning the former practice of forcibly taking aboriginal children from their parents to be raised by white families. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron recently argued that the phrase is a misnomer, given that an estimated 10% of children were removed, and 10% cannot be construed to mean "generation." That stung Aboriginal leaders, who want a government apology for past sins, not semantics. One, Charles Perkins, last month warned that visitors to Sydney would see buildings and cars burning in protests during the Games.

Less serious are the issues of sharks and swimsuits modeled on their sleek skins. The live version has led to nervousness among overseas competitors in the triathlon, which is making its debut at the Games. The chance of a shark attack during the swim leg in Sydney Harbour is statistically about as likely as death by falling asteroid, but to convince them it's safe to go into the water, divers with sonar devices said to ward off sharks will accompany the triathletes, as will boats with outboard motors, on the theory that Jaws abhors noise.

The neck-to-ankle swimsuits designed to mimic sharkskin are a more tangible issue. Makers Speedo and adidas let it be known that the full body costumes could help swimmers go up to 3% faster. The sport's governor, FINA, has a rule outlawing "any device that may aid ... speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition." But FINA decided the suits are more dress than device, and nearly all the world's top swimmers are likely to be wearing them in Sydney. The president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, remains worried that a swimmer in traditional trunks who misses out at the Australian Olympic trials, which start on May 13, may go to court to challenge a selected swimmer if he or she wore the new suit. A possible solution came last week from Australia's world 1,500-m freestyle champion, Grant Hackett, who said of the trials, "I don't care if I have to get up and swim nude, if that's what it takes."

That seems unlikely, and organizers say this and all other hiccups will be old news when "Let the Games begin" is pronounced in four months time. The Olympic torch will be lit this week in Athens before beginning a record 27,000-km journey to Homebush Bay a trip planned to include a novel underwater spell on the Great Barrier Reef, during which its high-intensity flame is meant to stay alight. Of course, the world's press will be looking for glitches with that, too. But were they not so diplomatic, the organizers might quietly mention that the main media center at Homebush Bay is still being converted from its traditional use for Sydney's Easter Show. It's surely coincidence, but the building's usual inhabitants are a somewhat smelly lot who give off quite a lot of hot air. It's the cattle and horse pavilion.