Beach bummer: Olympics crowds an Aussie icon

To Colin Charlton it's the ultimate in Aussie-style relaxation. Two or three times a week, he drives to Sydney's Bondi Beach after work and jumps into the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes he bodysurfs. Other times he just lets the waves wash over him. "It's better than a spa. It's better than a massage even," he says. And it's free.

Part Venice Beach, part Coney Island, Bondi Beach is an Australian icon. For some, it's where Australia's love affair with the beach began, a sugar-white temple of silica dedicated to the surf and the string bikini that has literally become the postcard for the Aussie lifestyle.

But as Sydney prepares to host the Olympics, Bondi Beach has also become an environmental battleground and a symbol of the Olympic fatigue some Sydneysiders are feeling in the homestretch to the opening ceremonies.

Four months from now, Bondi Beach will host the Olympic beach volleyball competition. Olympic organizers say they need a 10,000-seat stadium, for which construction began Monday. Opponents have been protesting for the last two days and scuffling with police.

They claim Olympic officials are going too far with a plan that will fence off almost a third of the beach until the end of October. "They could just put out some beach chairs," says Mr. Charlton laconically. "That's how they normally play beach volleyball here."

Opponents also claim that by shifting the sand to make the stadium, Olympic planners are risking ruining an Australian treasure by creating new currents offshore that could pose a risk for swimmers and surfers for years to come.

"We think there's a hundred better alternative sites where they can have it," said Lenny Kovner, a spokesman for Bondi Olympic Watch, the group leading the protests. "Beach volleyball doesn't have to be held at the premier beach in Australia. You can hold it in a parking lot like they did in Atlanta."

Australians are notoriously laid back - hence Charlton's beach-chair idea. But they are also notoriously protective of their enviable lifestyle: Almost 80 percent of Australians live in and around coastal cities and have quick access to the beach.

Named in 1827 after, it's thought, an Aboriginal word for the sound of waves crashing on rocks, Bondi (pronounced Bon-dye) is the quintessential example of that. Year round, it teems with people surfing, swimming, or strolling. On summer days, it can be quasi-impossible to find space for your towel, and on weekend nights, Campbell Parade behind it reverberates with the thunk-thunk of dance music as teenagers cruise the strip.

Heart of a community

Just 4 miles from Sydney's business district, it is also the historic home of Australia's embrace of the beach life. The surf board arrived in Australia from across Sydney Harbor, in Manly. But it's here that Australians first started to practice the art of sun bronzing, and where in 1906 Australia's first lifesaving club was founded as a result of a campaign to repeal old English colonial laws banning daytime swimming as obscene.

The beach is "the heart of this community," says lawyer and stadium opponent Stephen Uniacke. Olympic officials recognize the hardship. Since the protests began, they have scaled down their plans for the stadium. But "You don't put on the Olympic Games without causing some inconvenience," says Milton Cockburn, a spokesman for the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

Olympic officials also deny there will be any environmental damage. "Beach volleyball," Mr. Cockburn says, "has been played on beaches all over the world, and there's never been any suggestion it's caused damage to the beach."

In fact, when the Games leave and the stadium comes down, Cockburn says, the beach will be in better shape than it was, and the facilities around it will have gotten a million-dollar (US$600,000) facelift to boot.

The Bondi Beach dispute isn't the first venue squabble. Work stopped on the aquatic center for a few days after union workers complained ceiling tiles were falling on them. Environmentalists sued over the air conditioning system at the biggest indoor venue. Weeds catching on oars have drawn outbursts from competitors at the rowing center. And some Australian athletes lobbied to have their selection trials moved from the main stadium after finding inhospitable wind conditions.

An upside

Of course, tickets are still selling and not everyone is opposed to a stadium on Bondi Beach. For some, there may be an ulterior motive for wanting to have it built.

At the southern end of Bondi, where the surfers mass each morning on dawn patrol, conversation Monday was about the stadium. But it wasn't a question of opposing it. Instead, the surfers hope for some Olympic improvements as a result.

While it's close to the city and home to hundreds of surfers, Bondi owes its popularity to convenience more than its waves. According to Andy Winter, a carpenter who has been surfing here for almost 30 years, the waves on Bondi are normally "very mediocre."

But all that could change once the volleyball stadium is built and the underwater profile of the beach changes. Surfers, Mr. Winter says, could then be left with the ultimate consolation prize. "We might get some good waves out of it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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