SYDNEY -- For the last two weeks, ridiculing the 1996 Olympics has been sport in Sydney.
Comparing Australia's Games favorably to the ones that preceded them has become as common as records at the Olympic pool here. And, as the current changed during the second week, attention flowed from the Aquatic Center to the Sydney Harbour and the sideways looks moved southward until Savannah had become sniped by association.
The effort to bring Olympic sailing to Savannah in 1996 was among the city's most intensive ever, uniting branches of government, local businesses and individual members of the community. It was also one of the most successful, giving the city a tangential claim to the Centennial Games, a sense of inclusion with 15 days of races in our waters and Olympians in our presence. We worked hard to get the event and it worked for us.
But all Sydney had to do to secure the world's largest regatta was send out invitations. And it has been an even larger success here.
There were no campaings, no uncertainty, no local officials fretting what could come up to take the event away. Where else would anybody have wanted to be sailing this week?
"The venue here is fantastic," said Jonathan Hurley, the Olympic director for U.S. Sailing. "Sydney Harbour is one of the world famous harbors. You don't have to ride a ferry 45 minutes to get there. The venue stands out here."
It also stood alone.
Sailing was been different in Sydney -- than Savannah and perhaps than all other times it has been contested in the Olympics. These were the first Olympic races held in a working port, and the harbor they were held in was the hub for the 2000 Games, the place where people without tickets to indoor events gathered to share the experience.
Unlike in '96 when spectating was limited to those willing to ride nearly an hour to the ocean courses, this year's races have been accessible. They were one of few Olympics events that did not require tickets, with fans able to gather on the shore of the harbor and easily view the races for free. Nearby, one of Sydney's largest downtown parklands became a popular picnic area for budgeting Olympic fans, while the city's active ferries were among the limited craft with permission to go inside the exclusion zone around the race courses and allowed spectators an inexpensive close-up view of the sailors.
And, as intimate as the event was, it was even more prominent.
For nearly two weeks, sailing became an appendage of this Olympic city's most visible emblem, a glistening and bobbing extention of Sydney's famous Opera House. Large color photos of boats in the blue-green water appeared on the cover of local newspapers and there was nightly coverage on Seven, the Australian network covering the Games.
In 1996, meanwhile, sailing was one of few sports that received no live television coverage and, located roughly 250 miles from Atlanta, was neglected by most international visitors.
"I think there's almost no comparison," said Glen Bourke, the venue and competition manager for sailing at the Sydney Games. "I think this will establish sailing inside the Olympic community as a premier sport. There will be pictures and images from these Olympics that will establish sailing's identity internationally.
"When you have a sailing fleet out there on the water, with the opera house and the Sydney Harbour Bridge as the backdrop, it doesn't get any better than that. It will be the description given to sailing."
There were several advantages for sailing in Sydney that Savannah could not have competed with.
None was greater than the accessibility, the way Olympic organizers used what is often considered an elitist event to reach non-ticket holders. But the relative interest in the sport also contributed. While there is an established sailing community in Savannah, Sydney is a sailing culture, with roughly 85 percent of all Australians living within driving distance of the coast.
Visitors were also naturally drawn to the harbor and discovered the races, while flags on mantles of boats -- a first for the Olympics -- fed the Games' inherent nationalism. Australia's four sailing medals, its most successful Olympic regatta ever, also created a buzz about the sport and turned the medal ceremonies at the base of the Opera House into local celebrations.
"When we were planning the event, the plan was to make it as easy on the athletes as possible and as accessible for the spectators as possible," says Bourke, who was a sailing competitor in 1992 at Barcelona and coached the Australian team in Savannah. "We're just fortunate our forebearers had the foresite to leave the foreshore unadulterated to allow people right next to the water to view it. This event was the most condusive to spectating there's ever been for sailing in the Olmypics."
Savannah held its own in operation of the races themselves. The Intercoastal Waterway courses were praised by athletes and officials in '96 and were not necessarily surpassed this time. Waters in Sydney were slightly choppy, while strong wind did require one day of racing to be cancelled.
Overall, however, the weather was a little more cooperative here, as Sydney's spring conditions were predictably more gentle than late summer in Savannah.
"I think people were a little unnerved when we had some of those big storms come through in '96," said Hurley "Most people were not used to those winds.
"But everything is different and every situation is unique. When the day marina in Savannah was built it was a fantastic facility. Now this has been something different. People move on and the next Olympics, we'll move on. Now we'll start thinking about Athens, Greece."
And, as Olympic sailing moves from Sydney, it will cut a wake of singular success.
It had elements that could not be duplicated in other cities and is being spun, locally at least, as the most successful Olympic sailing event ever. Before this, Barcelona had been the benchmark, with the sailing harbor located in the middle of the Olympic Village. But in Sydney, it was in the middle of everything, a central point of the city for two weeks.
And, in the of Olympic event of venue comparison, the success here reflects backward, with this setting exceeding the previous standard set in Barcelona and casting Savannah as an Olympic middle child.
"We had a great event," said Bourke. "We had more exposure here on local television and there's been a lot on European television. I don't know about the States, but there's usually not much interest there anyway.
"Overall, this has been very satisfying."
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