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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

JANUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 2

The World's Eyes Are on Oz
Preparations for the 27th Olympiad enter the home straight
By JEREMY ECCLES Sydney


A fireworks display during an event at Stadium Australia, the main venue for the Games Courtesy of the Olympic Coordination Authority
Australian wits like to joke that preparations for the Olympic Games in Sydney from Sept. 15 to Oct. 1 are progressing in leaps and bounds - only the leaps have been in one direction and the bounds in another. Certainly, since the day in 1993 when International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared the Australian city would be the host of the first Games of the third millennium, there has been a rich lode for anyone with an eye for the absurd.

First there was the Marching Bands Row, in which American and Japanese youngsters were invited to put on a performance that would be a key element of the opening ceremony. What? Not something that everyone would recognize as specifically Aussie, asked the American-style talk-jocks on radio? The nation was declared to be in a state of outrage. As a result, the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) canceled the invitations. That left the bands outraged and threatening to sue. The result? A messy compromise in which a small number of locals will join the super-trained overseas marchers.

Then came the Olympic Torch Imbroglio. The frequency with which minor nabobs get to carry the flame as it travels around Australia, and the time it spends in planes or cars (75% of the distance) have offended the country's egalitarians and the "give it a go" ethos. Some 30,000 ordinary Aussies are said to be standing by to carry a rival torch across rivers and deserts and through villages and suburbs.

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On to the Clashing Logos Spat. Reebok, the sports-goods giant, pulled out of its deal to supply thousands of uniforms for runners and officials after a rival was authorized to supply a few baseball caps bearing its name. The loss to the organizers? About $625,000 in sponsorship funds. Unfortunately for Reebok, the moment its contract was torn up, in sprinted Nike - happy to pick up Olympic exposure at a cut price. "Reebok's been really quite silly," says Sydney Olympics boss Michael Knight. "We have most of the athletes' measurements in our computers for Nike to start working on."

Overall, sponsorship has fallen 17% below expectations. As a result, the organizers are hoping to make cuts in expenditure of between $62.5 million and $94 million. Some potential sponsors turned away for fear of being tainted by the scandal over the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, where a number of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members were found to have taken gifts to vote for the U.S. city. Still struggling with that problem, the Sydney organizers then faced the Great Ticketing Debacle.

At $375 million, ticket sales are the third-biggest money earner after TV rights and sponsorship. When the first lot of seats was offered last July, Australians found they were close to the back of the line. Who was ahead of them? Well, for a start, the "Olympic Family," which is headed, of course, by the 110 members of the IOC. Then there are the 199 national Olympic committees around the world. And the 28 summer-sports federations and their guests. And the sponsors - 10 global, 14 local. And the very rich, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates. And 15,000 accredited journalists. In some venues, this left only a few hundred seats for sport-mad Aussies.

And then came the matter of the Squabbling TV Stations. The host broadcaster, Australia's Channel 7, was put out when it discovered the organizers had sold a premium VIP box to Kerry Packer, owner of rival Channel 9. Channel 7's Kerry Stokes warned he was prepared to go to court to enforce his right to be the only TV mogul authorized to entertain at the Games. Now, though, he has been assured that his rival will sit quietly and not spoil his parade.

Awkwardly for the organizers, the mathematics of the pricing means that the rich will have to spend as much on their premium tickets as the rest of Australia put together. VIP boycotts or walkouts are close to the top of the list of things to be avoided. As one commentator said, the organizers have had to negotiate more hurdles than the competitors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Still, there is a happier side to things. Almost stealthily, a team of bureaucrats has been spending $1.75 billion of public money (and $625 billion of private funds) to build the venues, the roads, the railway stations and the parks that will not only allow the Games to happen, but will be a legacy for Sydney for years to come. In an uncharacteristic moment of ebullience, the Olympic Coordination Authority (OCA) claimed an Olympic record for having finished all the permanent sporting facilities earlier than any previous host city.

Most venues are at Homebush Bay, west of the city, up the Parramatta River. The site needed $81.2 million worth of work to transform it from a brickpit, arms factory and abattoir to a wholesome, eco-orientated grouping of monumental sports facilities. They are placed round a plaza five times the size of Venice's San Marco and capable of holding 300,000 people. OCA Urban Design director Bridget Smyth enthused: "As the broadcasters flash Sydney to the world, the myth of a country dotted with vernacular sheds [a type of cheap rural housing] will be dispelled. Innovative, flexible buildings grounded in specific responses to natural light and landscape will be seen. Some will show a deep relationship with the land. Others respond to the extraordinary light and expansive skyline of the west [the Outback] in varied ways."

If the 27th Olympic Games had an official color, it would probably be green. The athletes' village will be completely solar powered; all dirty water will be recycled to maintain 460 hectares of parkland; renewable timber is being used on some construction projects instead of steel and concrete; and natural airflow in buildings will reduce the need for air-conditioning. A new railway line will link the city with the airport, 2,500 more buses will be put on the roads and special Olympic lanes will be introduced on main thoroughfares.

And the sports arrangements? Stein Haugan, an official with the Norwegian Olympic Committee, says: "I would say that each of the [Australian] competition managers has a good background in their sport - the level of expertise is very, very high."

But then Australia has always been good at the sport bit. Aussie competitors have raised local spirits sky-high in the past year by bringing home world championships in just about every imaginable field - tennis, rugby, cricket, netball, hockey, swimming, triathlon, yachting and canoeing. Now, for the first time, they and everyone else will have a chance in Sydney to compete for gold in the new Olympic sports of synchronized diving, mountain biking and women's football. If only enough ordinary Australians can get tickets to the Games, home-crowd fervor should carry the locals through to a medal bonanza in September.

- This is the first of a monthly series leading up to the opening of the Olympic Games

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