Ready... Set... Sydney

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Sport at its highest level is a pure rush to the edge of human capability. How often do we get to watch mankind at its absolute best? We hear a composer's symphony or see the scar from a brilliant surgeon's operation, but we seldom see these men and women at the moment of supreme achievement. Sport provides one of the rare theaters where these moments can be glimpsed, and the Olympics are its gaudiest stage, where more records are set and broken than at any other athletic event in the world. By watching athletes like Marion Jones, Michael Johnson and Ian Thorpe push out the boundaries of human achievement, don't we also grow a little bit? Our very sense of what is possible expands by just a sixteenth of an inch or a hundredth of a second or even by the very staging of the Games. We are not only faster or stronger than we thought, we are also more indomitable of spirit and hopeful of forgiveness, more willing to ignore past conflicts and yesterday's hatreds. We grow by merely participating.

Yet if the Olympics happened every year or always in the same city, they wouldn't be so much fun. We save up our enthusiasm during the off years, developing a hungry curiosity not just for the Games but also for the place. The first Olympics of the millennium will be held in Sydney, Australia, a Pacific Rim capital city. Its spectacular harbor and opera house are among the world's most dramatic settings, superbly fit for what will unfold next week. The harbor is also the site of a signature Australian event, the triathlon, a lung-burning triad of swimming, cycling and running that will be making its Olympic debut. That Australia's famous sharks may be counted as spectators simply highlights the fact that this is a country and a continent still brimming with frontier spirit. They like a challenge here.

Australia is a land peopled first by Aborigines, forcibly resettled by Europeans, and then remade by immigrants from all over the world. A new wave of immigrants — some 10,000 athletes from 200 nations — will now descend on it to participate in 300 events, which will be covered by an astounding 21,000 journalists. You can tell yourself you won't watch, but you will. Call it the Olympic spirit, call it the love of good television, call it being a sucker for a good race, game, match or fight. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls — and the children we all become as we get lost in the spectacle — turn your attention to Sydney, where for 17 days this fall we will see one hell of a race. The human race.

Sure, it's easy to forget what is glorious about the Games, especially in non-O years. There are times when the five linked rings — supposed to represent the harmonious union of continents — seem to symbolize instead the tawdry connections between sport and so many of society's baser attributes. We read all the time about the scandals. Doping. Tainted records. Bribery. Boycotts. And in Olympics immemorial, racism and sexism. We begin to wonder why we ever made such a big deal of the Olympics.

There were the allegations last year that the Salt Lake City bid committee had bribed members of the International Olympic Committee to award the 2002 Winter Games to its city. More disturbing was the bid committee's defense that everybody does it — that all the recent winning cities had bought their Games. And then Juan Antonio Samaranch, the 80-year-old president of the I.O.C., blithely dispensed token punishments to offending I.O.C. members.

Indeed, to Samaranch, the autocratic Spaniard who has done more than any previous I.O.C. president to build the Games into a vast, billion-dollar athletic-industrial complex, such grumblings represent the vestigial complaints of those naοfs who still believe commerce has nothing to do with the Olympics.

Remember that the Olympics have never been any purer than the world from which they are supposed to be a respite. And though the Greeks reputedly called a truce in the middle of battles to participate in the Games, according to at least one legend the first Olympic event ever, a chariot race between Pelops and the King of Elis, was fixed by Pelops, who paid the King's charioteers to sabotage his axle.

After the Romans began to send delegations, the Games deteriorated to the point at which Emperor Nero was crowned a victor — in acting, an event he introduced but in which he faced no competition, and in chariot racing, an event he did not finish, after falling from his chariot. Perhaps his entourage of 5,000 bodyguards swayed the result. Eventually, Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, abolished the Olympics in 394, decrying them as a pagan ritual.

Since their 1896 revival by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Games have seen more than their share of hypocrisy and tragedy. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 stand as an outrage. Athletes from all over the world took part in what Hitler tried to manufacture as a Nazi propaganda exposition. Hitler might have succeeded had not Jesse Owens, the African-American grandson of slaves, won four gold medals — and been publicly congratulated by his long-jump competitor, German hero Luz Long. Of course no outrage compares with the tragedy of the killing of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games. Yes, the Games may always have been as flawed as their planet.

Yet the appeal of the Games transcends their flaws. Still embedded somewhere in the circus the Games have become is that simple desire to win for the sake of winning — no, the desire is even purer; it is to compete for the sake of competition. No number of corporate endorsements and no amount of sponsorship money can change that. Even if professionals now participate, the Games continue to thrive because even over a TV signal, the will to compete comes through. The simplicity of one runner beating another, one jumper outleaping another or one swimmer outstroking another — all provide a basic answer to an almost atavistic question: Who is swiftest? Highest? Strongest?

The Games are resilient, the Olympic spirit unsinkable, because the Games produce heroes, and it is in the nature of heroism to vanquish all opponents. When a Jim Thorpe or a Wilma Rudolph or a Mark Spitz or a Nadia Comaneci wins an event, he or she has not only defeated an opponent but has also put out of mind the criticism of the Games. Unlikely heroes emerge. Our aspirations and hopes become hitched for a few days or hours to a person whose face we have never seen before and whose name we have never heard.

Let's not forget that the Games are derived from a Greek religious festival. The ancient Games also featured displays of poetry, music, sculpture. The point was that there was always something for the eyes to feast on. Today's Olympics have the same carnival-like atmosphere. For a TV watcher, this spectacle makes for great viewing. Watch some javelin during the lull between 100-m heats. Cut away to the Aquatic Centre, where Fu Mingxia, triple gold medalist, will dive for China. Flip to a few rounds of the legendary Cuban heavyweight fighter Felix Savσn. Here's Marion Jones — she wants to be the first woman to win five track-and-field golds in one Olympics — warming up for the long jump, but before she leaps you can thrill to Ian Thorpe — "Thorpedo" — Australia's 17-year-old swimming sensation. Then there's the amazing Russian super-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin, going for his fourth straight gold medal.

Sprinter Maurice Greene, Moroccan middle-distance hero Hicham El Guerrouj, basketball star Vince Carter — there will be plenty of glamour names. But there are those we will remember whom we haven't yet heard of. Who knew of Kerri Strug before she nailed her landing on a severely sprained ankle in Atlanta in 1996? And the real heroes, well, we may never hear about them. For every Michael Johnson or Marion Jones, sponsored athletes who are as media savvy as they are athletically spectacular, there are literally a hundred athletes like Sirivanh Ketavong, Laos' best marathoner, who had to train in the same sneakers she wore in the Atlanta Games in 1996. She may never win a medal — or even merit a mention on television — but she and her fellow athletes will be there in Sydney for exactly the same reason — to compete, baby, to compete.