G'Bye, Mates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were ballroom dancers and Abba songs. There were giant Kewpie dolls and a Lawnmower man gone mad.

There was glitter falling from the sky and silver stilt-walkers. There were drag queens prancing with giant, blinking, glittery, marching high heels in a parade we'll never see again, and there was Greg Norman. Disco ruled. Love was in the air, in song and in the hearts of 10,000 athletes who formed conga lines and boogied.

At the end there were fireworks that started at Olympic Park, went up the Parramatta River and ended at Sydney Harbor Bridge. Fireworks that never seemed to end, fireworks enough to light the world.

The 2000 Olympics' closing ceremony Sunday was full of glitz and kitsch and good wishes for everybody.

For the last time International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch said thank you for a job well done to a host country.

Samaranch, whose wife died hours after the opening ceremony, gave the 2000 Olympics his ultimate approval at the closing.

"These are my last Games as IOC president," the retiring Samaranch said. "They could not have been better. Therefore, I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever."

At this the 110,000 people inside the stadium erupted. They cheered themselves and their country. It was applause well-deserved. There was not a time you could stop for a second without an Aussie asking if you needed help. There was not a person who didn't ask you to smile, coax you to smile, insist you smile.

So everybody smiled.

If it sometimes seemed as if these were the performance-enhanced Games, Olympics marred daily by positive drug tests followed by denials, excuses and protests, the closing ceremony was a celebration of everything else. The good stuff.

Some of the athletes walked as they entered the stadium, some ran. Some pranced and others moon-walked. A few sprinted, a couple crawled. Some carried flags and others video cameras. Russians joined hands with Brits. A Chinese man carried a German girl on his shoulders.

Ian Thorpe, the 17-year-old Australian swimming hero with big feet, big ears and fast times, carried the Australian flag. Rulon Gardner, the 29-year-old U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler with the big trunk, bigger legs and biggest upset of all, over previously undefeated Russian Alexander Karelin, carried the American flag.

But the closing ceremony really started earlier, with the arrival into the Olympic Stadium of the men's marathon runners. Not the winners but the stragglers.

The spirit of the Olympics came with J.A. Semprun of Venezuela, as he weaved and bobbed like a boxer. The crowd pleaded, but Semprun couldn't sprint fast enough, no matter how loud the cheering, to crack the three-hour barrier.

After Semprun came To Rithya of Cambodia. Rithya waved first his right hand, then his left. Just before he crossed the finish line, Rithya waved both hands at once. Then he made it to the end and collapsed, unconscious, totally spent. Rithya left the stadium on a stretcher, but his eyes opened and he heard the standing ovation.

And Rithya wasn't even last. That distinction fell to Elias Rodriguez, a stocky man from Micronesia. Rodriguez jogged, unhurried. After 3 hours 9 minutes 14 seconds of running, the last athlete had completed the last sporting moment of the 2000 Olympics.

There was one, final medal ceremony and then the pageantry.

The serious moments came early. There was homage paid to Greece as host of the next Summer Olympics. The Greek national anthem was played and then the Australian anthem.

Michael Knight, president of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, spoke while his wife cried. "All Australians are entitled to feel proud of our athletes," Knight said, "of our country and ourselves and of what our nation has achieved during this period."

Indeed, the Games ran with a grace and smoothness missing four years ago in Atlanta. Trains ran on time, buses got where they were going, athletes were put first.

After Knight spoke, Samaranch made his final Olympic speech. Battered by a year of emerging scandal, and still grief-stricken over the death of his wife, Samaranch wiped away a tear as he praised Sydney.

Then the Olympic flag was lowered and the Olympic flame doused. The 13-year-old star of the opening ceremony, Nikki Webster, again stood high above the stadium. She sang as the Olympic caldron was lowered. An F-111 bomber roared overhead. The flame went out.

And the party lights went on.

Australia is a country that doesn't take itself seriously, a notion underscored by the Parade of Icons representing different slices of Aussie life.

So first came a giant, rubber beach thong and pop diva Kylie Minogue, who sang the Abba hit "Dancing Queen."

She was followed by Greg "The Shark" Norman. Cue the theme from "Jaws." Norman popped out of a giant, silver shark and hit golf balls into the crowd of athletes. But this was not the zenith of cornball. Next icon up was model Elle McPherson. She modeled.

Icon No. 4 was Paul Hogan, "Crocodile Dundee" star still living off that 1980s hit. He rode on a giant hat and was followed by baby crocs, prawns riding bikes and lizards on unicycles.

Then it was Bananas in Pyjamas, better left unexplained, something to do with a children's TV show. Finally Icon No. 6.

Five drag queens carrying "Drag" road signs appeared. They represented a favorite Aussie film, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." The movie told a story of three drag queens who left Sydney for a tour of the outback.

The look on the faces of some athletes from Ethiopia should be captured on a poster. A dancing drag queen parade, you don't get that at every Olympic closing ceremony.

After the goofiness came the singing. The group Men At Work sang their big hit "Land Down Under."

Then Australian country music legend Slim Dusty brought the house down when he sang and strummed "Waltzing Matilda."

It has been an anthem of these Games, sung at swimming and water polo, equestrian and track and field events. It has been sung whenever an Australian athlete had a chance to win a medal and sometimes even when they didn't.

While 110,000 sang, superimposed on a giant holograph were the words "Bye From Oz," and then, "See Ya in Athens."

After the fireworks, live at the Olympic Stadium and shown on two big TV screens from Sydney Harbor, the athletes didn't leave. They danced, laughed, hugged, cried.

Samaranch had opened his last Olympic speech by saying: "Seven years ago I said, 'And the winner is . . . Sydney.' Well, what can I say now? Maybe with my Spanish accent, 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!' "

The crowd responded: "Oi, Oi, Oi."

Everybody knows that now.

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