Sydney Olympics: It's big, 'green,' and ready

Australia has cleaned up polluted Homebush Bay and built athletic facilities meant to dazzle the world.

It's one of the unofficial rules of the Olympics: Every host city has to do it bigger and better, to make the spotlight shine just a bit brighter on its new architectural wonders built for the Games.

Sydney, Australia, is no exception.

When the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Games are broadcast Sept. 15, organizers claim 4.5 billion television viewers around the world - more than ever before - will be focused on the largest stadium in Olympic history. Seating 110,000 people and costing $415 million (all figures in US dollars), Stadium Australia is a monster with few rivals.

If your standard for "better" is environmentally friendly, then Sydney's $1.98 billion in venues leads the Olympic pack.

Homebush Bay, where the majority of the events will take place, is the site of a former slaughterhouse best known for its toxic sludge before Olympic construction began. Now it's a remarkable achievement in environmental cleanup.

The Olympic Village, which will house 15,000 athletes and officials from around the world, qualifies as the biggest solar-powered suburb in the world. And everywhere else across the facilities, little touches guarantee Sydney will have the "greenest" Olympics ever.

In addition to bigger and better, Sydney may have added another challenge for future host cities: earlier.

"Sydney is ready for the Olympic Games," Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee member in charge of the city's preparations, declared last month. "With the exception of Lillehammer [Norway in 1994] ... we have never seen such a level of preparation. This is a benchmark for future Olympic cities."

But as with all Olympics, not all of the news about the venues has been good. There are still some big questions that won't be answered until competition gets under way.

After their first outing on Stadium Australia's running track, Australian athletes made miffed comments about wildly varying wind conditions in the stadium.

According to Sadie Watson, a spokeswoman for the Olympic Coordination Authority (OCA), the government body in charge of building the venues, tests since then have shown that wind levels in the stadium are "acceptable." But the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body for track and field, is concerned enough about the potential for sharply varying winds that it is considering changing the rules for Olympic qualifying heats to eliminate wind as a factor.

There have also been questions raised about the Sydney International Regatta Center, a converted sand-and-gravel quarry in the city's western reaches that will host the rowing events. Underwater weeds in the lakes there have grown out of control and have snagged some competitors' oars in test events. Last month, OCA officials announced a seven-week action plan to cut the weeds in both competition and practice lakes before the Games at a cost of up to $360,000.

But the biggest questions about the venues may have more to do with their future after the Olympics.

Organizers say the Homebush Bay complex, a 20-minute train trip from downtown Sydney, will become the city's entertainment and sports hub. It lies at the geographic center of a city that is sprawling farther and farther west, they argue, and is therefore better-suited to attract spectators from those western areas than venues in the city's east, along the coast.

Ms. Watson, the OCA spokeswoman, says Homebush has been drawing more and more spectators since development there began with a sports complex in 1984. That will continue after the Games, she says.

The number of visitors to the complex shows that Sydney's sports fans enjoy the convenience of Homebush, with its easy access by public transport, she argues. More than a million people have already passed through its visitor center.

"The fact that Sydney people are coming back shows how proud they are of the new venues," she says.

However, Anthony Hughes, executive officer of the Center for Olympic Studies at the University of New South Wales, worries that with other stadiums and facilities more convenient to downtown Sydney, the Homebush complex may end up being ignored after the Games and become an enduring symbol of misguided Olympic ambitions.

For example, the $120 million Olympic Superdome, which sits next to Stadium Australia and which will host the gymnastics and basketball competitions, has had a difficult time competing with the already established Sydney Entertainment Center in the heart of the city's Chinatown to attract big-name concerts.

Michael Knight, Olympics minister for New South Wales, the Australian state Sydney is located in, has ordered a review of the role the downtown Sydney Entertainment Center plays in the city, prompting a lawsuit by the company that runs the center, accusing him of bias.

Part of the problem is geographic, Mr. Hughes at the Center for Olympic Studies says. Homebush is too far west, and "most people who go to sporting events are on a North-South axis in Sydney" that lies farther east, he says. With the ocean and prestigious waterfront properties in Sydney's east, "that's where the money tends to gravitate to."

Homebush also is surrounded by residential districts without any pubs or restaurants where sports fans can gather after events, something Sydney spectators have come to expect. If Homebush is to succeed, that culture will have to change. "I tend to think it's a bit of a white elephant; it's a sterile experience," Hughes says.

Will that change in culture happen? The lesson of Olympics venues seems to be that whatever you build, in the end it's all about location. Even if your facilities are bigger, better, and earlier than those that came before.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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