After the party, it's back to brutal reality for the Aussies

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With the scent of the fireworks from today's closing ceremony lingering in their nostrils and the roar of the crowd in the Olympic stadium still ringing in their ears, Australians are about to wake up to one of the worst cases of Monday morning blues in their 212-year history.

With the scent of the fireworks from today's closing ceremony lingering in their nostrils and the roar of the crowd in the Olympic stadium still ringing in their ears, Australians are about to wake up to one of the worst cases of Monday morning blues in their 212-year history.

For the past two weeks, the nation has basked in the international spotlight, soaking up compliments about its friendliness, its organisational talents and the beauty of its harbour city. Now the party is almost over and the guests are preparing to depart, leaving their bereft hosts to nurse an almighty hangover.

Reality is about to bite, and it will be brutal. As Australians jubilantly counted their gold medals, their currency was falling through the floor. As they cheered their heroes at the track and in the pool, Indonesia, their giant and unstable neighbour to the north, was undergoing more convulsions.

And as they hailed the Aboriginal 400m gold medallist, Cathy Freeman, as the instrument of racial reconciliation, indigenous teenagers continued to kill themselves by sniffing petrol fumes in remote desert communities.

Tomorrow marks the return to real life, and yet real life will be different. Interest in the region will not evaporate overnight and there will be economic benefits to be reaped, particularly by the tourism industry. More importantly, perhaps, the global acclaim heaped on Australia has given an enormous psychological boost to this self-conscious young nation.

Australians can walk a little taller after hosting an outstanding Olympics that the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, is expected to praise today as one of the best in the 104-year history of the modern games.

Sydney not only produced a logistically flawless Olympics, with the venues universally admired and transport hitches ironed out early on. It did so with a peculiarly Australian mix of humour and informality that entirely disarmed its visitors - and with none of the rampant commercialism that marred the Atlanta games.

High-speed trains whisked half-a-million people to and from the main site at Homebush every day, with a jazz band employed to entertain the footsore masses as they returned to Olympic Park station.

An army of 47,000 volunteers in pastel-coloured uniforms was deployed to welcome spectators, give directions, crack jokes and generally exude Antipodean warmth. It worked; the huge crowds gliding round the park have been almost ridiculously good-natured. Ticket sales brokeOlympic records.

The entire city has been on an extraordinary high for two weeks. Every night hundreds of thousands of people piled into central Sydney to watch the sporting action on six large outdoor screens. But there was never any rowdiness or violence; in fact, crime figures are down by 20 per cent.

One journalist who has covered the last six Summer Olympics, says: "It feels as if the games belong to all Australians. They are not just Sydney's games, or the organising committee's." Harry Gordon, an Olympic historian, says: "These have been the Happy Games. I have not seen such an overpowering mood of sheer joy at an Olympics since Rome in 1960." They have been the athletes' games too. The 11,000 competitors have paid tribute to the Olympic village and have clearly had a good time there; although given 50 condoms apiece, they sent out for fresh supplies last week.

The generosity of the Australian crowds has also been noted. On Friday, Poland's Robert Korzeniowski, winner of the men's 50km walk, stumbled into the stadium in 30C heat. To deafening cheers, he crossed the finish line and then, with a beatific expression on his face, knelt down and kissed the track.

But the applause was equally thunderous when Britain's Chris Maddocks arrived more than an hour later. Australians may be exuberantly partisan, but they also take delight in the feats of rival nations and they always barrack enthusiastically for underdogs.

So while Sydney 2000 will be remembered for some great sporting dramas as well as, unfortunately, for a daily diet of doping revelations, there are other memorable moments - such gems as the spectacularly slow 100m freestyle heat of Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea, who had never before swum in a 50m pool.

In such a positive climate, it is not surprising that even Britain excelled, accumulating 25 medals including eight golds by the end of yesterday, the most since 1924.

The games have affirmed Australia as - in the words of the Prime Minister, John Howard - a "modern, sophisticated, capable, can-do country". They have also revived an Olympic spirit that was almost extinguished after the Salt Lake City vote-buying scandal. Indeed, if the IOC wished to rewrite the Olympic charter for a new era, it could do worse than to base it on the Australian values of efficiency, friendliness and fair play.

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