Down Under gets thumbs up

It's an absolutely glorious evening at a sidewalk restaurant here alongside Sydney Harbor, and as night falls, lights turn the magnificent Opera House into a riot of revolving colors. Across the way, the five interlocking Olympic rings adorn the bridge across the harbor.

Everywhere, people are enjoying everything. Mostly they are filled with the Olympic spirit, the joy of a world happening.

Taking in the scene, Australian Richard McGowan, managing director of RMG Communications, a corporate public relations firm here, says, "One of the things different about this Olympics is that Atlanta hosted the Games. Australians celebrate the Games."

It's a nuance, but sweeping in its accuracy: Last night's artfully crafted Closing Ceremony, complete with a thrilling F-111 flyover, put the exclamation mark on the event. International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch called the Sydney event "the best Olympic Games ever" - sweet words Australians desperately were hoping to hear.

All was not cheery, of course. These Games were besmirched with the use of drugs to enhance athletic performances. Notably, Romania's Andreea Raducan, who won gold in the gymnastics all-around, was found to be a cheat, and her medal was confiscated. The typical excuses were made, but she had few defenders.

Nor did America's C.J. Hunter, the world champ in shot put who failed several drug tests prior to the Olympics. His results were announced here.

While Hunter never intended to compete at the Olympics, claiming injury, the disclosure jolted Sydney - mostly because Hunter is married to Marion Jones, star of the United States track and field team. US officials were not forthcoming about the situation, which further cast a cloud over Americans and their attitude toward drugs.

Approximately 60 athletes tested positive before or during the Games, and suspicion was rampant that the number traveling on the chemical wild side was far more. Without much improved and expanded testing, it takes an extreme optimist to think the situation will be improved four years from now in Athens.

Away from the trappings and away from the drugs, no new stars - American or international - truly emerged as they normally do. No Kerri Strug, Greg Louganis, Matt Biondi, Carl Lewis, Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Amy Van Dyken, or Mark Spitz.

Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner came close, dramatically upsetting Russian Alexandre Karelin, a 12-time world champ and three-time Olympic champ. Gardner candidly admits he didn't think he could win. He was, by far, the most surprising winner at the Games for the US.

Elsewhere for the US, the bag was mixed.

As always, Americans were their usual dominant selves in swimming.

"The rest of the world," concedes Aussie coach Don Talbot, "is still trying to catch the US." The US won 33 medals. This was the most in any sport for the US. The Australians were second with 18.

Lenny Krayzelburg, born in the Urkraine, was the only American to win two individual golds. Tom Dolan got the only individual world record, in the 400-meter individual medley. Jenny Thompson won three more golds, giving her a career total of 18 golds - but all in relay events, meaning she owes much to her friends.

This was among the poorest performances by the US men in track and field, with only Maurice Greene (100 meters), Michael Johnson (400 meters), Angelo Taylor (400-meter hurdles), and Nick Hysong (pole vault) winning individual gold medals.

The biggest US busts in the Games were the men and women gymnasts, who didn't get a single medal for the first time since 1972.

Groused competitor Blaine Wilson, "I'm tired of explaining the fact that winning a medal doesn't make you a person." Big changes are ahead in this discipline, involving both coaches and athletes.

It's possible the men's basketball team is losing its advantage over the world, even though it won the gold medal with an 85-75 win over France.

More likely is that other nations, like Lithuania, can do well when the Americans decide to put in a half-hearted effort, hope to win on reputation, and whine about officiating.

In other significant sports, it's not so clear what the direction is. The US finished second in women's soccer, and many of the players who have pushed the US to star status internationally almost certainly will be gone in four years. Who will replace them? Ditto in softball, which almost got itself eliminated early, then fought back to win a gold.

Coming out of these Games, the health of the Olympic movement seems iffy. Adrian Wojnarowski, writing for espn.com, makes reference to "the scandal and sleaze of this dying Olympic movement." That may be overstated, but the point is troubling.

Still, according to observers with long Olympic perspectives, no one could have asked more of Australia. Never has a Games been better prepared for or better executed.

Back at harborside, however, all is well. "It's almost as if we overprepared," McGowan says of his country's preparations. "But we know the world really wants to come to Australia and we want the place to live up to expectations."

That Australia is a sports-crazed nation helps. If it's sports - Australia rules football, rugby, cricket, soccer, anything - and outdoors, Aussie's clutch it to their chests. "There's not very much to entertain us indoors," McGowan says.

If there was a theme to these Olympics, which ended yesterday, it was: It couldn't have been any better. It would take a cold heart to find fault with the way the populace pulled it all off with such grace and excellence.

Happiness and celebration and good times roll. McGowan smiles and says, "We're really proud of this place and what we've done."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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