Olympic preview

Posted: Monday, September 11, 2000

As the curtain is about to rise on the greatest show on earth, the star of the 2000 Olympics is sure to be Australia and its people.

From the stunning views of Sydney Harbor to the colorful expressions of the laid-back Aussies, from kangaroos to crocodiles, the world is about to be flooded with images of the remote island continent.

Of course there will be plenty of sports drama and action, as athletes and spectators feed off each other's maniacal energy. There is nothing like the pace of an Olympic Games, with 20 top-level events running at the same time, as spectators rush around trying to take them all in. There will be 10,500 athletes from 199 countries competing in 31 different sports as 15,000 media people compete to tell the rest of the world what happened at this $3.5 billion party.

World records will be set, old champions will fall and gold medals will be won and lost by the slimmest of margins. But beginning with the Opening Ceremonies on Sept. 15 and running through the Closing Ceremonies on Oct. 1, the lasting impressions of the Millenium Games are likely to come from the host country itself.

Part of the reason for that is the athletes. While there are many great athletes, none stands out in any of the glamour events. Michael Johnson won't be able to repeat his historic double gold in the 200-meter and 400-meter runs, failing to qualify in the 200 after pulling a muscle.

American women could win team titles in softball, basketball, soccer and

gymnastics, but they did that in Atlanta, so it won't be quite as startling this time. Swimmer Jenny Thompson needs one more gold to break a tie with Bonnie Blair for the most decorated female Olympian ever. But except for a semi-topless pose in Sports Illustrated she has not generated as much excitement as, say Mark Spitz.

American track star Marion Jones could provide some glamour and excitement as she goes after five gold medals. She has the personality and charm as well as the athletic ability, but she must regain her form in the long jump. And her name still isn't exactly a household word yet.

Another problem with generating excitement in the United States about the athletic events is the 15-hour time difference between Sydney and the eastern United States. Major events will happen in the early morning hours in the United States, so NBC, the television network with American rights to the Olympics, has decided to air everything on tape delay. There will be no live events on NBC or its cable partners, MSNBC and CNBC.

The problem with that is many viewers already will know who won by checking the Internet, reading a newspaper or hearing the result on radio or television news.

The network will concentrate on telling good stories, which it does so well. Storytelling plays well with Olympic audiences, which tend to be much more heavily female than most sports events.

As in every Olympics there will be at least 10,500 good stories, as we learn how each athlete had to sacrifice so much just to compete, some without any hope of winning a medal. But the spirit of the Olympics is about competition, about bringing out the best in yourself, not winning medals.

That won't stop the United States from trying to defend its medal title, which it should do easily, but the Australians hope to use their home court advantage to make the race interesting.

In track, for instance, Cathy Freeman will try to duplicate Michael Johnson's double gold in the 200- and 400-meter runs. In swimming Ian "The Thorpedo" Thorpe will try to use his size 18 feet to paddle to four gold medals.

Other sports from beach volleyball to sailing, from basketball to equestrian could also bring victories to the Aussies.

Other stories you'll be hearing about include:

+ Great Britain's Steve Redgrave trying to become the second person to win Olympic gold medals at five consecutive games.

+ Cheryl Haworth, 17, from Savannah, trying to win a gold medal in her first Olympics.

+ Cuba and the United States slugging it out in boxing and baseball again. This time professionals will be allowed in baseball, though Major League players stayed home.

+ Turkish weighlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot-11 "Pocket Hercules," who came out of three years retirement to try for a fourth gold medal.

+ Lance Armstrong, two-time Tour de France winner after beating testicular cancer, trying for his first cycling gold medal just weeks after being hit by a car while training in France.

+ Glamorous sisters Venus and Serena Williams trying to bring home tennis gold.

+ Another Dream Team of American professional basketball players clobbering everyone.

But the story of Australia will wrap itself through all these stories as the mystery of Australia unfolds to the 3.7 billion people who will read, watch and listen about these Olympics.

Some Australians already are worried they have oversold their image of casual, hard-drinking fun-lovers. It's an image Americans love to conjure up as they think about the similarities between the two countries: first settled by refugees from England, sprawling, wide-open, less formal and more egalitarian than European monarchies.

Authorities worried that prostitutes and drugs will flood Sydney have promised to crack down on illegal merrymaking.

As usual there are controversies that flare up just before the Olympics. This time there are worries about a flu bug raging through Sydney, the transportation system, baggage handling at Sydney Airport, the design of the medals, a new drug test, the weather and drag queens appearing in the Closing Ceremonies.

There's all the speculation about who will light the flame. Everyone will watch Olympic czar Juan Antonio Samaranch to see if he smiles when the Games are over.

These and other flaps likely will fade into obscurity once the athletes begin. And once they begin, hold onto your hats. It will be spectacular. The Olympics always are.

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