Column: Sydney's the setting, Australians are the characters

Good on ya, mates! That's what I was thinking on Friday as I watched the Australians' colorful inauguration of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, perhaps the most beautiful port city in the world.

My last (and best) Foreign Service assignment was from 1992 to 1994 at the American Embassy in Canberra, Australia's "bush capital." If you watch the Games you'll agree with me that the Land of Oz is truly different.

First, there's the language, "Strine," or Australian English. Your friends are your mates and yes, they all say "G'day" (rhymes with "die") at all times. And you don't root for the home team - that would get you into a lot of trouble - you "barrack" for your favorite team.

As Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote last week, "Heaps of you blow-ins ... are cummin' to Steak 'n Kidney for the Games, dunkin' yer tucker in sauce and never takin' yer shout. Well, strike me pink if I don't stand up and barrack."

English translation: "Many of you foreigners ... will be arriving in Sydney for the Olympic Games, slathering your food in ketchup and never buying a round of beers at the pub. Well, pardon me if I don't stand up and cheer." The moral of this story is that you can't be a dinkie die Aussie unless you speak Strine.

But, on to the Games. Australian taxpayers have invested more than $3 billion in the Sydney Games. Remember that this is a country about the size of the United States but with a population of less than 20 million, most of it concentrated within 30 miles of the coast far from the vast remoteness of Crocodile Dundee's Outback. The main Olympic Stadium and many of the facilities are located at Homebush Bay, a former toxic dump site about 11 miles from downtown Sydney.

The most spectacular venue, however, is Sydney Harbor itself, crowned by the magnificent Opera House and the venerable Harbor Bridge. On my frequent trips to Sydney, I stayed at a hotel overlooking the harbor. Although I grew up in Seattle and have spent a lot of time in San Francisco, I prefer the dramatic setting of the Sydney harbor with its lush vegetation and hundreds of miles of coastline. As in Seattle, many Sydneysiders commute to work by ferry from residential neighborhoods surrounding the harbor.

Australians are justifiably proud of their Olympic achievement. Although preparations for the Games were mired in political controversy, athletes and visitors have given the Olympic facilities and venues rave reviews.

"I think it's the best venue in all of sport," U.S. triathlete Hunter Kemper gushed in the Washington Post after viewing the harbor from the steps of the Opera House. "It's unbelievable." And seeking to avoid the crass commercialism of the Atlanta Olympics, Sydney officials relied on tax revenue rather than private money to fund construction of stadiums and facilities.

Environmentalists boast that this will be the first "Green Games," with such innovations as a rooftop solar power system on the so-called "Super Dome," which will house the gymnastics and basketball competitions. The Aquatic Center will require only 10 lights to illuminate by day, and the park's main arteries will be lit by 19 enormous solar towers.

Officials have promised to recycle or compost four-fifths of the waste generated at the park. And finally, barring a last-minute bus drivers' strike, the Games will be nearly automobile-free since spectators are required to use public transportation in order to get to Homebush Bay.

Organizers hope that the Sydney Olympics will have more women and fewer drug cheaters than any Games in recent history. Women will comprise a record 38 percent of the 10,000 athletes from 199 countries, competing for the first time in pole vaulting and weightlifting. For the first time, athletes will face random testing for the performance-enhancing steroid "EPO," the most widely abused drug in endurance sports.

Perhaps that's the reason 27 members of the Chinese track team stayed home.

Despite Australia's admirable success in organizing the 2000 Games, all is not well within the Olympic movement. The International Olympic Committee is still headed by 80-year-old Spanish aristocrat Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was an admirer of Spain's hated dictator, Francisco Franco. It was Samaranch who set the tone for the IOC members who took bribes and payoffs from city officials bidding for the Games, leading to a messy public scandal and criminal charges in nearby Salt Lake City.

As USA Today noted last Thursday, Samaranch wrote to Australia's prime minister seeking an explanation for his government's decision to bar two Olympic officials with alleged links to organized crime syndicates. Samaranch also lobbied Indonesia to release an IOC member who is awaiting trial for his key role in the corrupt regime of former dictator Suharto, proving once again that Samaranch is soft on dictators.

And finally, there's a gambling problem in Sydney since Aussies will bet on anything and everything. While we're voting for a new president on Nov. 7, Australia will shut down for the Melbourne Cup, an annual horse race upon which millions of dollars are bet.

As an Australian Olympic Committee spokesman told USA Today, "We're probably the biggest punters (gamblers) in the world." AOC President John Coates, who likes to play the ponies, said a betting ban on the Games would be unrealistic because, after all, "You simply can't enforce such a ban."

But despite the problems, Sydney and the Aussies will put on a smashing good show. Let's just sit back and enjoy it. No worries, Mate!

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment