Originally created 09/17/00

Sydney is transformed into an 'Olympic community'



SYDNEY-- Of course they went first. They had the guns.

Shooting accounted for the first medal of the 27th Olympiad Saturday, American Nancy Johnson marking her way to gold in the 10m air rifle competition. Maybe that was appropriate for the Sydney Games, a fitting first shot to start two weeks that will race like no others Australia has known. And to begin a time when most of that race will be run through a tightly bunched collection of venues that will make Sydney feel as close as it is united at the moment.

Typically, the term "Olympic community" is only a concept. In Sydney, it's an understatement. It's an inadequate description of the complex organizers here have come up with, how they have shoehorned so much into so little space at Olympic Park and managed to do it without any sense of crowding.

It's pretty impressive, a shopping mall of sports, the various arenas and stadiums serving as racks from which spectators can pick their pleasure. And there's plenty to choose from in a place that has more stuff than Pier One Imports.

Even this early in the Games, on the first full day of competition, Sydney's Olympic Park is already filled with possibilities. It doesn't even take long to find them, because getting around the 11/2-mile athletic ring surrounding Stadium Australia is a lot easier than moving about the rest of the Olympic city.

The longest walk in the complex is roughly 12 minutes from the Super Dome, where gymnastics is being held, to the Aquatic Center for swimming and diving. From there, it's just three minutes to the entrance of the South Venues, a cluster of arenas where table tennis, taekwondo and tennis will be played and where the Crown Prince of the Netherlands and Princess Ann were among those at the Netherlands-Great Britain field hockey match Saturday. (Those royals are suckers for a good open-field check.)

The other side of the loop leads back past the Aquatic Center to the Sports Pavilion, a strung-together collection of auditoriums where badminton, rhythmic gymnastics, handball, modern pentathlon, volleyball and the basketball preliminaries will form a steady line of activity. The back door of the pavilion leads to the Showground Baseball Centre.

And that's it, half the sports being offered in the 2000 Games closer neighbors than the Mertzes and Ricardos. All you need is a full day and comfortable shoes to see 14 different events.

All right, you're not exactly walking around the corner from the Super Bowl to the World Series. This is the Olympics. It's got more silly events that a first-grader's birthday party (modern pentathlon? Come on.)

Still, it's something. It's easy access when getting to Olympic venues is usually a more testing competition than Greco-Roman wrestling.

And it is yet something else to show that Sydney is doing its Olympics right. It doesn't even matter that the Olympic Park is built on the site of a former landfill. To get around this easily, most Olympic patrons would walk over raw sewerage.

At most Olympics, getting to 14 different sports would require buses, trains, taxis, shuttles, a skateboard and two teams of sled dogs. Here, it's: hang a right and walk a little.

Sydney has its inconveniences, too, events that are not so easy to get to from anywhere in the city. The other half, actually. For some people, reaching the water polo arena requires three transfers. The weightlifters have been told to expect a 11/2-hour commute to Darling Harbour. Cycling and some early baseball games are an hour away with traffic in Blacktown.

They haven't gotten it perfect here. But they've come pretty close inside the concise circle of Olympic Park.

Now, what they should have thought about was making this sports buffet available to spectators by operating it as the amusement park it's being viewed as. Why not sell all-day access passes, the kind of E ticket that used to get you on all the rides at Disneyworld? They have Frontierland and Tomorrowland. Sydney could have had Olympicland.

It would have never worked of course. You'd have eight zillion Aussies showing up at the swimming finals and, like, three parents at modern pentathlon. (What's so modern about this event, by the way? Do they have to leave that qualifier on there to keep people from confusing it with the ancient pentathlon, which must have been, what, the boulder lift and the mate hunt?)

No, such freeform Olympics and wide-open ticketing would be too troublesome.

But, you get the feeling they maybe could have made it work at Sydney's Olympic Fantasyland.