Olympic deadline sparks building frenzy fireworks

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DURING the Second World War, to silence dissent or to get things done quickly, the phrase "There's a war on, you know" gained almost universal currency. In Sydney in the Nineties, people tell you, with a similar purpose: "The Olympics are coming, you know." The city that will host the 2000 Olympics is suddenly convulsed in a frenzy of construction, and heaven help objectors.

It is as if Sydney, so normally laid-back, has woken up with the shuddering feeling that the deadline that once seemed way out there is now way up close. It's not the actual Olympic site itself, self-contained a few miles from the city centre, that's worrying people. It's what's happening to the rest of the city. Freeways, railways, hotels, skyscrapers, you name it, needed or not they're being built, with the magic date of September 2000 being used to justify everything.

Somehow, you're made to feel unpatriotic, a whinger or a killjoy if you complain about one of Sydney's most historic parks having its side carved off to make way for a new motorway, or ask why an underground railway line being built to Sydney airport could not have been re-routed to take in several transport-starved suburbs.

The jackhammering, bulldozing and digging up of streets has made driving in Sydney a nightmare, and raised the city's stress levels. "Every nation reveals its character in the way it drives its cars," writes John Pringle in his book Australian Accent. "And the aggressive thrusting side of the Australian character rises to the surface as the drivers force their way through regardless of rules or common courtesy." That was in 1958. You should see it now.

The sweetener, of course, is that once the Olympics have packed up and gone Sydney will be left with a "legacy" of new transport systems and restored public spaces. But people are sceptical. A few weeks ago, I went to a local residents' meeting near my home about plans for the Olympic yachting to be held in a nearby bay on Sydney Harbour. The big issue was who would get to use the foreshore facilities post-Olympics: the public or an elite group of yachties? The mood was angry. An Olympics official tried to reassure everyone, but the wretched fellow was shouted down. And it's still only 1998.

THE AUSTRALIAN cricket team is having a tough tour of India and, as normally happens when the Australian side is not winning, the tour has long since disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers. What has made more news is the problem that Shane Warne, the spin bowler, has been having with the local food. Warne is more old-fashioned digger than New Age Man. He calls men "blokes", not "guys", and said recently, when journalists questioned his expanding waist line, that he "couldn't give a rat's arse" about his weight. It was not surprising when, unable to face Indian food, he called for tins of baked beans to be flown in from home to keep him going.

Baked beans, like steak and chips, might once have defined Australian food. Not any more. "Seafood meets modern Asian" is how Sydney foodies would define the national cuisine these days. The names of two of Sydney's smartest restaurants, the Wokpool and Tetsuya, say it all. But, listening to a couple of nutritionists on the radio recently debating the good and bad points of Warne's favourite food (mostly good, as it turned out), I was suddenly seized by a craving for baked beans. Out I went and bought two tins, and back came a taste experience buried since childhood. I couldn't help wondering how many other Sydneysiders had secretly done the same thing.

So does this mean that baked beans will be making a reappearance on Sydney restaurant menus, now that Shane has had the guts to declare for them? I doubt it.

THE OTHER night, I managed to scrounge tickets to the hottest show in town. The Boy From Oz is a musical based on the life of Peter Allen, the flamboyant singer and songwriter who grew up in outback New South Wales and went to Hong Kong, where Judy Garland discovered him and took him to America. There, he married Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli (from whom he later separated) and won an Oscar for writing the theme from Arthur. Allen died in 1992 from an Aids- related illness.

The producers, Ben Gannon, an Australian, and Robert Fox, a Brit, took a big gamble staging Allen's life as a musical. But since it opened in Sydney last month, it has smashed box office records. The season has been extended until December, and there are plans to take it to Broadway. As Australia's first hit musical about an Australian hero, it also says something about changing Australian values.

Would a musical about Don Bradman, Paul Hogan or some more conventional local hero have taken off so spectacularly? Don't bet on it.