In uncanny timing, the Olympic flame at Nagano was extinguished during the closing ceremony this week, moments before international interest in the Games flickered out.

It’s standard. By late in the second week of an Olympic Games, it’s usually a race to see which will burn out first, the majestic flame or bleary-eyed television viewers.

So, rest up, only 2 1/2 years to go before the flame is lit again in a raised caldron to mark to opening of the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games.


Olympic logistics will again be an issue. The time change to Nagano overtaxed the time settings on most VCRs, and the television delays worked even the most ardent sports fan’s last nerve. Newspapers struggled to give readers something approaching the definition of news, or anything they didn’t already know.

It won’t be better here. Sydney--in a time zone that is two hours beyond Japan’s--will be even worse in the delivery-of-yesterday’s-news-next-week sweepstakes.

Even with the concession of tilting the Games’ schedule so events take place in the morning, there’s no getting around the globe-spinning nature of Sydney’s time zone. Nor the fact that the Summer Olympics will, by virtue of their placement in the Southern Hemisphere, become the Spring Break Olympics. Sydney’s Games will run Sept. 15 through Oct. 1, smack in Australia’s spring, when temperatures hover in the 60s, and past the end of most of the Northern Hemisphere summer sports’ seasons.

The organizers of the Sydney Olympics are aware that for most of the world, time will be out of whack. They aim to distract attention from that by offering the most athlete-friendly, ecologically sound, ethnically diverse Games ever. All this, set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most beautiful settings, Sydney Harbor, framed by twin icons--the graceful Harbor Bridge and the stunning Opera House.

Sydney, a city of four million, will play host to the largest games ever. There are a record 28 sports on the bursting-at-the-seams Olympic program; taekwondo and triathlon have been added. An international television audience of 3.5 billion is expected.

Most of the festivities will be held at Sydney’s Olympic centerpiece, Homebush Bay, a site that only ten years ago was an abandoned toxic waste dump and today is called the dioxin capital of the world.


Other than that, things are coming along pretty well. The Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) was established four years ago and is on its third president. Olympic griping, raised to the level of medal sport at the Atlanta Games in 1996, has already been projected to 2000. It’s a sort of anticipatory cringe usually visited upon host cities in expectation of what can go wrong.

For further information on Olympic debacles, see Atlanta ’96. As a slogan, “Better than Atlanta” is starting to take on quite a ring. Officials here privately admit that the commercial crassness, transportation foul-ups and information problems visited upon Atlanta organizers were the best things that could have happened to the expectations put on Sydney.

“The bar has been lowered, there’s no denying it,” one SOCOG official said. “Whatever we do in certain areas, no matter how deficient, will be an improvement.”

Sydney dearly wants to put on a spotless Games. Australia’s reputation as a sports-loving nation--it’s one of only two countries to have participated in every Olympic Games--is not the only bragging right at stake. The timing of the Games coincides with the centenary of Australian federation, and, of course, the Games will usher in the millennium.

The Issues

As the Games approach, and with them the attention of the world, various political issues are heating up. Because sports and politics are bedfellows, the resolution of these issues will have a bearing on the Sydney Games:

* There is an ongoing national debate about whether to break away from the British Commonwealth and allow Australia to form a republic. As things now stand, the Olympic tradition that calls for the head of the host state to open the Games would mean that Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth--who is technically Queen of Australia--would do the honors.

Australian pride would find that a difficult scenario to accept; rest assured the image is being used by the Republican movement to sway public opinion from the monarchists.

Also not forgotten is Her Royal Highness’ support of Manchester’s bid to host the 2000 Games.

* Despite the Green Games tag, Australia is one of the world’s highest contributors of so-called greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, thanks to an extensive coal-burning infrastructure. As far as international environmental watchdog groups are concerned, Australia is classed in the Eastern European category as a high polluter. The entire country sits underneath the Earth’s largest hole in the ozone layer.

* Aboriginal land rights issues are on the front burner and heating up. Despite High Court rulings in favor of claims to native title, the conservative government is trying to deny those rights to Aboriginal people. That, coupled with what some consider to have been a whitewashed report regarding the “stolen children”--a failed Australian government policy of taking Aboriginal children from their parents in order to raise them “white”--undoubtedly will sully Australia’s reputation.

Among budget cuts made to accommodate Games funding was $400 million to Aboriginal affairs. Some Aboriginal groups have threatened a boycott of the 2000 Games and have hinted at some other disruption.

Officials here are concerned about the negative fallout. Not coincidentally, included in Sydney’s mission statement is this: “SOCOG aims to deliver a Games which promotes the attributes and culture of Australia’s indigenous people and to encourage their participation in the staging of the Games.”

Whether that statement alone can forestall a boycott remains to be seen.

Just as international journalists fanned out from Atlanta, looking for stories of the Old South and all of its embarrassments, so writers in Sydney will focus on whatever national dirty laundry is lying about. In a nation unused to scrutiny, such criticism, no matter how accurate, will likely rankle.

This scathing analysis from the Canberra Times suggests what’s in store for the slumbering country:

“The inability of a nation with a relatively tiny population to sort out its own identity and make the simplest of moves to remove a foreign national, and a monarch to boot, as its head of state after a century of nationhood, simply underscores how retarded the Australian psyche has become.

“Mercifully, the rest of the world is normally uncaring about this remote part of the globe. During the Olympics, however, it won’t be. Stand by for the raised eyebrows, even disbelief, when the international analysis reveals a country still in its political childhood.”

For Australia, the stakes are more than prestige or getting on the map. As is usually the case in the Olympic movement, the Games are about money.

Regional economists hope the Games will help drag Australia out of its worst recession in 50 years, made worse by the recent Asian economic crisis. The projected Olympic economic boon would pour in $7.3 billion (Australian) to the economy, add some 150,000 full- and part-time jobs and bring an additional 1.3 million visitors to Australia.

Building the Games

The cornerstone of Sydney’s bid was the promise that attention would be paid to environmental issues. That stance would seem to make the chief Olympic site an ironic choice.

Homebush Bay is a 1,600-acre area of tidal wetlands nine miles from downtown. Half the Olympic events will be contested there, where companies such as Union Carbide for years stashed toxic waste by the barrel in the marshy ground. Dioxin, a carcinogen and the key ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange, has been found at 12 locations on the Olympic site.

An expensive and furious cleanup is under way.

Meanwhile, SOCOG officials boast that the athletes village they are building will be the world’s largest solar-powered suburb. The village will be powered by scores of roof-mounted solar panels, with the capacity to generate 1 million kilowatt hours per year. The reliance on solar energy will reduce the demands on nonrenewable sources of energy by 60%, compared to traditional homes.

The $430-million cluster of cutting-edge dwellings will become a housing subdivision after the Games. Some of the 650 permanent buildings already have been sold as private homes. A primary school and community facilities will be built and used by athletes as recreation areas during the Games.

The construction has been as Green as possible. There is minimal use of PVC materials in favor of recyclable materials, all water will be recycled and non-chemical barriers will be used for termite control.

It will be the first time in modern Olympic history that all 15,000 athletes and officials will be housed in a single village.

The International Olympic Committee awarded Sydney the Games in 1993 with the understanding that the cost of construction and production would be underwritten by the government of New South Wales. Some would argue that Atlanta’s failings stemmed from the privately funded Games’ anemic cash flow.

A government-funded Games presents similar problems: With an ever-changing cast of elected officials moving in and out of office in the seven years from winning the right to host the games to the opening ceremony, can the government’s will to fund the undertaking remain constant?

“Oh, it’s always in the budget, that’s not an issue,” Sandie Watson, of the Olympic Coordination Authority, said from underneath her hard hat on the dusty construction site.

“The total SOCOG budget is $2.3 billion, and the state government is underwriting the cost of building new venues. It all gets sorted out.”

In fact, the New South Wales state government has notified all governmental departments that budget cuts will be made to fund an additional $325 million to help pay for transport, police, health and other services the state is supplying.

The federal government recently got into the act, but by requesting payments, not making them. It was reported that the government intended to charge Olympic organizers for services such as security, drug testing, customs and quarantine.

Federal government officials say nothing has been decided, but such last-minute charges could certainly bust SOCOG’s budget and embarrass the organizers.

“It would be damaging to Australia if there was no cooperation from the federal government, but I don’t think it will get to that point,” SOCOG President Michael Knight said.

SOCOG has taken on an unusually large financial burden, vowing to pay for the estimated $20-million cost of round-trip air fare for all competitors and officials, as well as the cost of bringing in all the yachts, horses, bicycles, canoes and kayaks to be used during competition.

The traditional problem spot, the construction of venues, appears to be in hand. Most Olympic construction is on schedule, a state of affairs not always assured in a country often disrupted by strikes. The Olympics were spared potentially damaging industrial action thanks to an unprecedented agreement signed last December that virtually guaranteed a no-strike, on-budget, on-time delivery of facilities at 19 venues--the largest construction project undertaken in Australia.

The 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium, with its cantilevered roof, is being built with the use of the world’s largest mobile crane. The crane--one of two built for putting rockets in place at Cape Canaveral--dominates the skyline at the sprawling Homebush Bay site, which is connected by dirt roads on which trucks rumble around the clock.

Ground has been broken on the 18,000-seat Multi-Use Arena--that’s its name--to be used for basketball and gymnastics.

The Sydney International Aquatic Center, opened in 1994, was called by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch “the best swimming pool I have ever seen in my life.”

If construction is moving along, so is transportation. That was Atlanta’s well-documented failing. Sydney’s extensive public transportation system has recently been augmented to include a train line from the airport to downtown.

Athletes and officials need never get caught in traffic, a la Atlanta. Olympic family traffic will have exclusive use of Sydney’s RiverCats, high-speed catamarans that race along the Paramatta River from Homebush Bay to downtown.

Officials promise to minimize the chance of traffic snarls.

If only they could do something about that time change. . . .