Originally created 10/02/00

Sydney anything but subdued



Subdued, huh?

If this was Australia at its modest best, I would like to see it here when they try to draw attention to themselves. I'd like to be around when they make a show.

Because the last two weeks in Sydney have been to understated what end-zone dancing is to church prayer.

We had been warned that Australians in general and Sydneysiders in particular were a cool, self-conscious lot, that they would feel almost uncomfortable in the world's eye and embarrassed to have everyone watching them for two weeks. We were told wrong.

There was no effort to tone down these Olympics. No overt straining to have them accepted, either. There was just a refreshing blend of support and hope, of appreciation for what the Games were and relief for what they weren't.

Sydney closed its Olympics Sunday night the same as it opened them more than two weeks ago -- with style, with ceremony and with new dimensions of imagination. They lit up the city with fireworks at seven different sites simultaneously, their Games still burning bright to the last minute. And when Juan Antonio Samaranch called them "best ever," at Sunday's Closing Ceremony, his words were more predictable than the "I do," at a wedding.

The IOC usually says that after an Olympics (except in Atlanta, when they drew attention by not saying it.) But this time they couldn't have said it more sincerely. Or more fittingly.

Australia might have put on an Olympics for themselves, but they also ended up showing the world how it should be done. It was like a nationwide block party, but calling them the G'day Games doesn't cover it anymore.

Because these weren't good days, they were great days, 16 of them stacked on top of each other with Australia's image climbing higher on each one. For two weeks, this country has presented itself as gracious and fervently interested in sports. They have lionized their winners, respected everyone else's and shown an underdog's empathy to whoever failed to finish first.

Perhaps because they are used to trying to prove themselves they appreciate a good effort. And that is what they gave these Olympics, an excellent effort, a lot of work that they made seem like play by having such a good time with it.

The pride that was all around Sydney Sunday night was well earned. Because they did the impossible here. They held an Olympics without incident and without major error. The pulled off the hardest trick in entertainment -- they enjoyed themselves and they earned universal approval.

And it's funny, but now that they're over, there seems to be less celebration about that than relief. They so wanted these Games to succeed here, so wanted the world to enjoy their Olympics and ultimately approve of them, that they seemed humbled when they actually got what they wanted.

About all they were put off by here were the reports that ratings in the U.S. were poor, that Americans had tuned out their Games.

But they just figured America didn't know what it was missing.

I can understand why these Games were not particularly well-received in the States.

The time difference was too big an obstacle to enjoying the immediate drama of sports. And it was too hard to keep straight. We're accustomed to having the world operate on our time and when it doesn't, we tend to look away.

Also, these were esoteric Games. They were very Australian in presentation and execution. That might have made them hard to follow at home, but it was what made them successful here, what gave the whole country a feeling of ownership and belonging. And that's what made supporting these Olympics as popular as slamming them has been at others.

When I think of what made the last two weeks -- the joy of the opening and closing ceremonies, Cathy Freeman's moving run, "oi, oi, oi," -- they are all very local appeals, all very Aussie.

Maybe that's why the Games got even more popular here as they went on, which is nearly impossible. Usually, the Olympics are too long for everybody. The athletes, the officials, the volunteers and the media all have had enough after 10 days at other Games. But here, the excitement kept growing.

By the end of the two weeks, Australia was captured. Even the young people for whom the Olympics are usually about as cool as hatchbacks were drawn to the Games increasingly as they went on, shouting Aussie chants, wearing temporary tatoos of their country's flag and turning the satellite viewing stations set up around the city into their hangouts.

Sunday night, Sydney even turned the most anticlimactic event in sports -- the closing ceremonies -- into the biggest party of these Games, with about five times the number of people downtown than there had been for the opening. It was another Olympic record, one for sustained interest and unwavering acceptance.

Maybe that feeling will last here longer than it has elsewhere. Maybe the success stays with Sydney along with the stadiums and arenas it had built for this. If it could happen anywhere, with any Games, it could happen here.

They turned out the light Sunday. But in Australia, you've got to think the Olympic flame will rage on.