Sydney opens Olympic Games

SYDNEY, Australia - More than 100,000 spectators will watch 10,000 athletes march into Olympic Stadium for colorful opening ceremonies and the official start of the XXVII Olympiad.

Look for a dazzling made-for-TV spectacle that will tell the story of Australia in music, dance and special effects. Taking center state will be a host of Australian entertainment and sports figures including singers Olivia Newton John and John Farnsworth and swimmer Dawn Frasier.

The American contingent will be led by kayaker Cliff Meidl, elected Wednesday as the U.S. flag bearer. Meidl, from Redondo Beach, Calif, became a world-class kayaker after surviving a 1986 construction accident in which he was struck by 30,000 volts of electricity, blowing off two toes, a portion of his skull and costing him full use of his legs.

Australians are hopeing that hosting the Olympics will help change their image.

''The tourists come off the boats and still wonder why we aren't all wearing bushmen's hats and walking about with crocodile skins to sell them,'' said Todd Black, a real estate agent who was enjoying himself at one of the city's oldest watering holes.

''It's funny, a bit, but it's a worry,'' added his friend, Nathan Smythe. ''It's like Oz is still not being taken seriously enough by the rest of the world.''

As much as the Olympics are about celebrating sports, the Games are also about casting the host city in a new light. And like most of his fellow four million Sydneysiders, Black confesses, over his schooner of beer, to ''heaps and heaps'' of misunderstandings about this vast but faraway continent.

For all the forward momentum in this country - in part from the Olympics, in part through a booming economy - there remains an odd insecurity among Australians, one that has a striking similarity to Canada's own existential qualms about being taken for a land of igloos and Mounties.

Partly due to its isolation and youth - it celebrates its 100th birthday next year - Australians are still struggling to define who they are to the rest of us.

Sometimes, though, the Aussies shoot themselves in their own desert boots. Marketing an Australian beer abroad, one brewery decided to joke about Australia's cultural backwardness. Australian for salad, the ad said, was a bit of parsley on a steak; Australian for lockpick was a man hitting a door with his cranium.

At a pre-Olympic news conference this week, John Morse, head of the Australian Tourist Commission, said Australians may hate being linked to kangaroos, but it is an integral part of hitting the mark in marketing the country abroad. The byproduct, however, isn't surprising.

''(NBC's) The Today Show comes here for the Olympics, and who do they put on as one of their first guests? Crocodile Dundee,'' complained Lauren Grey, an art student at one of the city's colleges. ''Paul Hogan (the actor who plays him) is all right, but he shouldn't become our bloody international mascot. We're more than Crocodile Dundee, though sometimes you'd never know it.''

But who are the Australians, then? The answer, one of Australia's leading cultural critics suggests, is a work in progress.

''The fact remains we are not English, and still less American,'' Robert Hughes, Australia's noted cultural critic and author of the international bestseller The Fatal Shore, writes in the Olympic's official program.

''We cannot be understood in terms of either country, even though our own sense of identity, I feel, shows moments of folly, weakness and irresoluteness - as exemplified by our vote last November to keep Queen Elizabeth II, a foreign monarch, as head of state, as though no mere Australian was worthy of such an office.''

A walk through Sydney is certainly proof that Australia's 19 million citizens, whose economy has grown at more than 4 percent a year for most of the past decade, are redefining themselves. The once dowdy downtown is now a canyon of gleaming glass skyscrapers and recently sandblasted colonial-style buildings.

After abandoning its white-only immigration policy in the 1960s, it has enjoyed an immigration wave that has literally added color (not to mention culture and tolerance) to the streets.

Even the efforts to bridge the country's daunting isolation - it is a 14-hour flight to North America - are obvious. In recent months, there has been a profusion of popular Internet cafes opening in Sydney, in huge rooms in office towers and even in 24-hour convenience stores, some offering 50 or more computer terminals.

With the approach of the 27th Olympic Games, an air of expectation has enveloped Sydney. But some fear the organizers may go for the hoary stereotypes and miss the chance to carve out a more rounded image.

''For many Australians, the memory of the now-infamous kangaroos on bicycles, a feature of the Sydney segment of the Atlanta closing ceremony, still lingers four years later, accentuating the apprehension that surrounds the Opening Ceremony,'' Anthony Dennis wrote in Sydney Morning Herald. ''In terms of national confidence, it is the one event that promises to illustrate how far, and how short a distance, we've come as a nation.''

There aren't many details of what the ceremony will be like, though the theme is ''G'Day.'' It is known that Hogan will be on stage, but whether in a bush hat or Armani suit, nobody knows for sure.

Meanwhile, here are some of the things Sydneysiders would appreciate you knowing:

The only kangaroos you are likely to see in Sydney are the harbor's five-star restaurants, served on a plate with a side of arugula and a glass of $12 Australian shiraz. And outside of the zoo, the only ''croc'' that's going to turn up will be on your pizza, the specialty of a chi-chi night-spot that also provides roasted emu as a topping.

For the most part, this remains an empty continent, dominated by the hardscrabble realities of the resource-poor outback, where kangaroos do hop about and quirky bushmen do eke out a meager living.

But in this Olympics, Sydneysiders hope to let four billion TV viewers see what Aussies call ''the New Australia.''

''We're a major country, with all the trappings, mate,'' said Gary McDonald, a bus driver. ''After the Olympics, I think people are going to have to recognize that.''

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