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September 13, 2000
IOC on trial in SydneyPaul Holmes
The loudest cheer of the Sydney Games may well resound through the Olympic stadium on Friday when Australia's athletes march into the arena for the opening ceremony of the biggest show on earth.
But it will be men in suits who will probably breathe the greatest sigh of relief 17 days later if the Millennium Games manage to do one thing above all -- return the focus to sport.
In an age infinitely more cynical than when the first modern Olympics were staged in 1896, Sydney Games organisers (SOCOG) and the Olympic movement itself will both be on trial before a staggering global television audience of 3.7 billion people.
Organisational bungles and a bombing in a public park blighted the previous Summer Olympics at Atlanta in 1996.
Since then, the International Olympic Committee has been steeped in scandal over graft, laboured to shake off a reputation for being soft on drugs and fought to justify a commercial machine that will haul in $1.33 billion in television rights fees alone at the Sydney Games.
With two days to go to the opening ceremony, Atlanta-style transport chaos appeared to be the prime challenge still confronting the Australian harbour city's preparations for the record 11,000 athletes from 200 countries at the Games.
Complaints from athletes and journalists over buses arriving late and getting lost and grumbles from out-of-town drivers about pay and conditions have raised questions about whether Sydney can get it right where Atlanta went so astray.
"We are conscious of the fact that as we get into the Games, we have less and less luxury for things to go wrong," said Paul Willoughby, a spokesman for the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority ORTA.
Transport and the fickle spring weather apart, organisers appeared to be on course for an Olympics that will break records of all sorts and, given Australia's passion for all things sporting, generate bumper crowds at the 28 Games venues.
SOCOG general manager of sport Bob Elphinston told a news conference on Wednesday: "We're ready. We've done everything that is necessary to host the 28 sports."
Officials have conducted 42 test events across all sports and disciplines.
"There is no one venue that is deficient in any way," he said.
Sydney initially ran into public flak over a policy of reserving the best tickets for the wealthy, but an about-turn by SOCOG has led to a late surge in sales that organisers hope will allow them to meet their goal of $350 million in ticket sales.
"Eighty percent of the total tickets have been sold. The highest ever was 82.3 percent so it shows every sign of being an Olympic record," said IOC marketing commission chief Dick Pound.
Organisers' concerns over possible violent protests by Aborigines seeking an Olympic platform to air their grievances have also subsided, with indigenous leaders pledging peaceful action and little sign so far of large-scale demonstrations.
New South Wales police commissioner Peter Ryan said on Wednesday extra security had been provided for Israeli athletes at the Games, though other officials say Australia is not aware of any credible threat to the Olympics from any extremist group.
The Games will unleash Australia's biggest mobilisation of security forces outside wartime, with the military granted special powers by parliament.
Ryan vowed a no-nonsense response to any attempt by anti-corporate protesters who disrupted a World Economic Forum gathering in Melbourne this week to do the same in Sydney.
"We will not tolerate this city being closed down. We will not tolerate any disruption to the Olympic Games," Ryan said.
For the IOC and its president Juan Antonio Samaranch, overseeing his final Olympics, Sydney will test whether the Olympic movement has cleaned up its image on two fronts -- drugs and sleaze.
Doping has been a prime issue since Canada's Ben Johnson was exposed as a drugs cheat after his 100 metres victory at the 1988 Games in Seoul.
The IOC cleared a new combined blood and urine test for the stamina-boosting substance EPO in time for Sydney, a departure it believes will show it is serious about the fight on drugs.
China dropped 27 athletes from its team, including six from the "Ma Family Army" of women middle distance runners, before sending its competitors to Australia.
Several were axed for what Chinese sporting officials, eager to win the 2008 Games for Beijing after losing to Sydney in the battle for the 2000 Olympics, said were "suspicious" blood tests.
The IOC also hopes a successful Games in Sydney will help restore an image tarnished by revelations over the last two years of bribery of some IOC members in connection with Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games.
Ten members left the organisation after being accused of taking gifts from the U.S. city.
With the U.S. Justice Department still investigating the affair, Samaranch cautioned on Wednesday that the scandal may not have gone away despite IOC internal reforms aimed at making the body more transparent and democratic.
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