Sydney hits the first press hurdle

With 200 years' experience tackling bush fires, Australia's fire-fighting expertise is world-renowned. But a different kind of fire-fighting is taking place in the Olympic City as the Sydney Games organising committee (Socog) and associated media directorates attempt to stamp out negative international press coverage.

With 200 years' experience tackling bush fires, Australia's fire-fighting expertise is world-renowned. But a different kind of fire-fighting is taking place in the Olympic City as the Sydney Games organising committee (Socog) and associated media directorates attempt to stamp out negative international press coverage.

For weeks now, the population of the Media Village has probably outnumbered the residents of Sydney. These journalists need something to write about. Until there are some athletes on the track or in the pool, the focus remains on the build-up and the teething troubles.

Controversy rages in particular over transport arrangements, with many of the newly recruited volunteer drivers apparently not sure where they should be going (try the Olympic Stadium, mate, you can't really miss it). The International Olympic Committee president, renamed here "One-Anchovy Sandwich", cancelled a trip when the bus booked to collect his party went to the wrong place. Huge sympathy for him, of course.

Competitors arriving from the northern hemisphere summer have been complaining about the cold, despite warnings about temperatures to expect from Australia's first days of spring. Other gripes include the distance from the Olympic village into the city centre and the lack of free refreshments at media centres.

It's noise-level stuff. But still the attempts go on to dampen any negative stories, with British correspondents in the firing line and no doubt some ears burning at The Times and Daily Express. Not surprisingly, such actions simply attract more press comment. Moreover, the media-watchers were so busy trying to put out fires abroad that they were recently ambushed by one of their own.

On 23 August, The Sydney Morning Herald front page announced that up to 200 of Sydney's "most glamorous drag queens" will take "a starring role" in the Olympics closing ceremony. Talk-radio switchboards overheated, as callers expressed disgust and their intention to boycott the Games. Parents threatened to withdraw children who had been practising for months to appear at the ceremony. The Catholic Church, Australian Family Association and State politicians joined in.

The international media picked up the story and gave it a twirl. In the US, religious groups called for transmission of the Games to be blocked or the whole event cancelled. Back here, the Letters pages steamed as the gay lobby congratulated Socog's "visionary" move and objectors deplored the "promotion of homosexuality".

Olympics Minister Michael Knight stepped in, saying the segment was not "a tribute to drag" but a celebration of Australian cinema that happened to include Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a film that features drag queens. The number of "artists" participating was said to be 40, not 200. But despite Socog's best efforts, the hysteria level continued to rise.

"Fight fire with fire" became the motto and details were swiftly leaked of a spectacular finale to the closing ceremony, River of Lightning. Sydney's readers and columnists fell silent - briefly. But before long, the keyboards were humming. "Isn't this just the River of Fire that didn't quite come off on the Thames at New Year?" whined the first correspondent. "Why do we always have to have fireworks - can't they come up with something original?" moaned the second. "AND JUST HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST US?" thundered the next wave. The drag queens were history.

The Fire Service has announced the delivery of 15 new state-of-the-art vehicles to the Olympic site to boost the fire-fighting capability. Good try, but until that Torch arrives at Stadium Australia on Friday and the world's press gets some real action to report, Socog-bashing remains, frankly, the only game in town.

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