August 17, 2000


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Sydney anticipates invasion

Brian Williams in Sydney

The Sydney Olympics begins its four-week countdown on Friday with Australia's largest city poised for an invasion of one million visitors.

The burning question for Games organisers is whether the creaking transport system can cope with this massive influx -- including a record 10,500 athletes from 199 countries -- plus Sydney's 4.5 million inhabitants.

The Olympic torch waits to be litAirport authorities recommended a 10-point plan on Thursday in a bid to counter malfunctions with a new baggage handling system which recently delayed thousands of international passengers and caused a mountain of mislaid luggage.

The plan also includes more back-up power supplies after computer problems led to air traffic control problems and flight delays.

Extra trains have been put into service and roads are steadily being closed to allow only Olympic movement.

Transport worries apart, the city is putting the finishing touches to preparations, including the erection of giant illuminated Olympic rings on Sydney Harbour Bridge.

But the Goodyear blimp, key to providing spectacular aerial shots of the Games from September 15 to October 1, has been damaged and grounded by a freak wind and and may not fly again in time.

Athletes have started to arrive for acclimitisation training, but one squad has gone missing. Togo's competitors have been caught somewhere in the complicated airline scheduling needed to ferry them from Africa to the Land Down Under.

"The next month will be the countdown to the experience of a lifetime," the Sydney Telegraph forecast. "For two weeks, Sydney will be the focus of world attention; let us not disappoint them."

But the Australian Financial Review saw damage to the blimp as a possible omen.

"After the ticketing and marching band debacles, public transport headaches and all manner of other niggling issues, a limp blimp is just the kind of problem SOCG (Sydney Games Orgnising Committee) and the IOC could do without," the paper said.

International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch worrys whether Sydney's fickle weather at this time of the year will deliver rain or sun.

For Australians in general, increasingly getting into the Games spirit as the Olympic torch travels their vast landscape, the big unknown is who will plunge the flame into the giant cauldron to mark the start of Sydney 2000.

Speculation includes distance runner Ron Clark, who lit the flame -- and burned himself on the arm in the process -- when the event was last in Australia at Melbourne in 1956.

Another popular forecast is a twin lighting by former Olympic champions, wheelchair-bound Betty Cuthbert, a sprinter, and swimmer Dawn Fraser.

Olympic Minister Michael Knight and Australian Olympic Committee chairman John Coates, who have taken control of the Games in the past week to ensure firm hands in charge, have given few clues.

It will be a past Olympian but if the name leaks out then another person will be chosen.

The opening ceremony will take place at Homebush Bay, site of the main stadium, about 30 minutes drive from central Sydney.

Games organisers have shunned big international names for the spectacular, opting instead for local talent to entertain the 110,000 opening night crowd and millions of television viewers.

"The songs, performers and musical arrangements will showcase the rich and diverse styles and talents of Australia's musicians and singers to the world's biggest audience on the world's biggest stage," said Ric Birch, Sydney 2000 Ceremonies director.

Among entertainers will be John Farnham, whose decades-long career was launched with the tune "Sadie, the Cleaning Lady."

He will team up with Olivia Newton-John, who co-starred with John Travolta in the 1970s hit film Grease, to sing "Dare to Dream" as a welcome to the world's best athletes.

When the cauldron does burst into life, the IOC hopes it will burn away bitter memories of the last trouble-marred Games in Atlanta in 1996 when a bomb exploded.

In between, the Olympic movement has been hit by a series of drugs, bribes and cronyism scandals.

Top Dutch swimmer and multi-world record holder Inge de Bruijn said doping hysteria had taken over the Olympics when she arrived in Sydney this week.

"It's pretty much sad, but right now if you perform well in any sport they cut your head off," she said.

De Bruijn and the other competitors can move into the Olympic village from September 2, the first with the capacity to accommodate every athlete on one self-contained site.

The village has 800 houses and 350 apartments, serviced by 9,000 staff.

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