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September 7, 2000
Web craze sweeps OlympiansPaul Holmes
Check your training times, check your event schedule, but first make sure you check your e-mail.
Sport may be the aim of the Olympic Games but web surfing runs a close second at the Athletes Village in Sydney.
"If I had to wait an hour, I would. You have to check your e-mails," said Petra Banovic, a swimmer from Croatia who had stood in line for 20 minutes at the village's Surf Shack cyber cafe for a turn at one of its 70 terminals.
In the Internet age, the Surf Shack is proving the biggest draw at the village, pushing the electronic games arcade -- a prime attraction at past Games -- off top slot.
"It's just chocker" (packed full), said Pilar Martin, media relations manager at the free cyber cafe, which is run by computer giant IBM, an official Olympic sponsor.
"We've literally got them lining up at the door when we open at nine o'clock."
Nearly 1,000 athletes at the village, less than half full now but home to nearly 11,000 competitors once the Games get under way on September 15, have already set up their own personalised home pages since the cafe opened last Saturday.
Sports enthusiasts can access the athletes' pages via www.ibm.com/fanmail and send electronic appreciation to their favourite athletes, sports teams or national delegations.
"You get them from people you've never even heard of," said Heather Newsham, a 23-year-old softball player from Winnipeg, Canada, whose home page lists her favourite food as steak and tells fans she loves movies and Italian soccer.
"I haven't replied yet, but I will."
The cyber cafe is the third at an Olympic Games and by far the biggest -- a reflection of the global reach of the Internet and e-mail as a fast, low-cost means of communication.
"It's much cheaper than the telephone. I call my boyfriend and write to everyone else," said swimmer Adriana Marmolejo, from Mexico. "I just logged in and I had like 30 messages from there. It was really cool."
The cafe is hugely popular with athletes from less developed countries, where access to the Internet is not yet widespread.
Puerto Rican Orlando Cruz Torres, 19, has spent three hours a day at the computers since arriving in the village.
"I want to learn how to use it so I can buy one later," said the young boxer after posing with a clenched fist for the electronic photograph for his home page, which he was creating with the help of his trainer.
Martin said IBM had set up security programs to prevent athletes from receiving threatening or abusive e-mails from the world beyond the Olympics. She could not say to what extent access to the web by the athletes themselves was restricted.
"They can surf the net pretty widely, but I don't know if you'd want to look at a porn site with 1,000 people looking at you," she said.
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