They're not so different than us, really.

Posted: Friday, September 15, 2000

SYDNEY. For weeks now, all we had been hearing was how the Sydney Olympics would be the Subdued Games, that Australians were far too circumspect to conduct the boosterism that often accompanies this event. We were told that, while they had a great affinity for us (which they do), Aussies were to some extent the anti-Americans, the opposite of our self-congratulatory, melodramatic image. They were supposed to be so aware of the world's opinion, so sensitive to criticism, that they wouldn't overtly revel in the biggest event their country has ever held.

That even had been the spin locally, with pokes at American hubris coming from newspaper stories, while beer commercials claimed, "I'm Australian, I don't cry when I see my flag.'' And it was going to be the mood Friday night for the Opening Ceremony until somebody forgot to tell Sydney. People were going to be happy, for sure, and proud, but they were going to stop short of the civic cheerleading that Atlanta was so ridiculed for four years ago.

I have only one word to say about that.

Oi!.

That's what the Aussies said Friday to welcome the start of their games, screaming the exclamation from all corners of Sydney and for the whole world to hear. The monosyllabic burst of exaltation was the soundtrack for the opening ceremony Friday, the theme for the first night of what now seems will be Sydney's celebration of itself.

It comes from an old rugby cheer (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie - Oi, Oi, Oi!) and suggests shear joy and triumph. Friday, it came from the100,000 who had paid $1,382 ($727.10 American) to see the ceremony at Stadium Australia and the roughly one million people who crammed Sydney's downtown district to watch on giant screens put out for the Games. And it came from the heart, on a night when Sydneysiders could feel theirs pounding.

Juan Antonio Samaranch kicks off the gala with a strained, but appreciated "G'day?''

The Australian team enters Stadium Australia, throwing little yellow kangaroos into the crowd, to highlight the ceremony's march of athletes?

A relay of Olympic champions passes the torch through the infield until Kathy Freeman lights the cauldron and ignites a nationalism that wasn't supposed to burn in the cool heart of Oz?

Oi, Oi, Oi!

It was as much a mood as a word. And it was fitting for a night that caught Sydney with its emotional guard absent, especially on the pedestrian mall behind Circular Quay train station. That's where an estimated 500,000 gathered, spilling up side streets like water looking for coves during a flood, like Times Square times two.

The people who were supposed to be too stoic to show how badly they want their Games to be a success had no shame in showing a new side. Young people dyed their hair green and gold and painted little Australian flags on their faces. Adults wrapped themselves in their country's flag, same as impassioned European soccer fans.

Whole bars sang "Waltzing Matilda.''

All through Sydney Friday, Australians cheered themselves, unembarrassed by the depth of their self-satisfaction or the height of their excitement. They were just so proud and so happy, the whole place was like one big maternity ward.

But, there was something different between this and an American Olympic celebration. This was excitement without expectation, happiness for what was being seen and not what might come as a result of it. People were excited in Atlanta, too, but because of what they thought they might get out of the Olympics.

There, a big city with a small identity looked to the Games for validation, for the world's admiration and acclaim. They looked for credit, whether it was for being pleasant or for pulling off the event. Some just looked for a profit, turning the streets into a giant outdoor outlet mall.

Sydney will benefit from its Games, as well. In two weeks, it will have 10 first-rate sports venues where it once had none. It perhaps might even see a rebound in its wounded dollar from the spree of Olympic spending that will occur during the next two weeks. And people here will get the world's approval that critics say they so sorely want.

But, mostly Sydney will get Friday, the night when people here discovered an excellence in themselves and didn't worry what anyone thought when they acknowledged it. When they did cry when they saw their flag and screamed when they saw anything of their own.

"That will make the blood curdle,'' Steve Catlin, a conductor of Sydney's city rail who was watching the scene from the elevated train platform at Circular Quay, said of the night's loudest roars. "I'd say there's a pro-Australia sentiment.''

Oi, mate. Oi, indeed.

Morning News columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352.



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