The Olympics: Can Sydney really deliver?

It's the biggest event in Australian history. A nation's pride depends on its success. But not everyone is wishing next month's Olympic Games well. So can Sydney really deliver? Or will the shadow of dark truths return to spoil the party?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The twin spires of St Mary's Cathedral in central Sydney pierce the sky, powerful symbols of urban renewal. For 135 years, the imposing neo-Gothic pile stood unfinished, its sandstone towers only three-quarters built. In a grand fin-de-siÿcle gesture, church and civic authorities decided to complete it in accordance with the English architect's original design.

The twin spires of St Mary's Cathedral in central Sydney pierce the sky, powerful symbols of urban renewal. For 135 years, the imposing neo-Gothic pile stood unfinished, its sandstone towers only three-quarters built. In a grand fin-de-siÿcle gesture, church and civic authorities decided to complete it in accordance with the English architect's original design.

The scheme - which came to fruition in June when two Celtic crosses were gently lowered into place atop the cathedral's new spires - was conceived amid a blitz of construction work aimed at beautifying Sydney in the run-up to next month's Olympic Games.

The city has been tarted up beyond its wildest dreams, with new plazas, office buildings, parks and public artworks. But appearances can be misleading. Gaily coloured hoardings conceal gaping holes in the ground, projects that are years behind schedule. At Sydney's spanking new international airport, a power failure virtually shut down air-traffic control last week. Charities are wondering where on earth to put the homeless people turning up daily on their doorsteps.

Will Sydney live up to expectations and deliver the best Olympic Games ever? Will the visiting masses be enchanted with what they encounter after traipsing over to the other side of the world? Will the Games put Sydney on the map as a financial centre? Will they make Australia feel like a grown-up country?

These are the questions that Sydneysiders are pondering as they count down the final dizzying days to the opening ceremony on 15 September - those who will be here, at least. Half a million locals are planning to leave town during the Olympics, for Melbourne and Queensland, Asia and Europe, anywhere to escape the crowds, the chaos and the disruption.

Another three million are staying put, but not all of them regard the Games as an occasion to celebrate. At Victoria Park, a triangle of green adjoining the University of Sydney, a thick plume of smoke rises from a ceremonial bonfire marking the city's newest landmark: the Aboriginal "tent embassy".

The embassy, a cluster of two dozen tents in the shade of some eucalyptus trees, is an offshoot of a camp set up opposite parliament in Canberra 28 years ago to remind politicians that Australia's original inhabitants never surrendered sovereignty over their land.

The three-week-old Sydney settlement - visible to traffic on the main route to Homebush Bay, site of the principal Olympic venues - aims to convey the same message, as well as other unpalatable truths: the Third-World standards of health and life expectancy in some Aboriginal communities, the poor educational levels attained, and the distressing death rate of young Aboriginal men in custody.

"Sydney beat Beijing to host the Games because of China's human rights record," says Isabell Coe, a veteran campaigner based at the Sydney embassy. "What about Australia's human rights record? This is a country in total denial."

For Ms Coe, and for many of Australia's 300,000 indigenous people, the Olympics are a unique opportunity to highlight their plight. The threat of a boycott has been withdrawn out of respect for the Aboriginal athletes competing, most notably the sprinter Cathy Freeman, the 400-metre favourite. But there will be demonstrations at carefully selected locations. Activists this week notified police that they intend to march on the airport daily in the five days before the Games start, presenting visitors with a "human chain" of protest as their first taste of the city.

Equally worrying for Sydney organisers is a shadowy network of anarchist groups which, according to New South Wales police, is plotting to target the Olympics after picketing a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne on 11 September. Some officers have raised the spectre of a re-run of last December's "Battle of Seattle", when anti-capitalists clashed violently with police outside World Trade Organisation talks in the American city. On a more prosaic level, the logistics of arranging the biggest event in Australia's 212-year history - Sydney's population will be swelled by half a million overseas and interstate tourists, not to mention 6,000 journalists and 10,000 athletes and their entourages - are proving a nightmare.

During last week's blackout at Kingsford Smith Airport, the second within a month, air-traffic controllers switched off computers, air-conditioners and even kettles in a frantic effort to conserve energy. A repetition of the power cut, which brought the airport to a standstill for 80 minutes, would be disastrous during the busy Olympic period.

Another day, another derailment. The overcrowded and antiquated State Rail Network has just notched up its 31st train off the rails this year. There have been six such incidents in the past month, all involving rookie drivers trained specially for the Games. Sydney folk, accustomed to the sight of forlorn passengers marooned on platforms, are politely asking how the system will cope when required to carry 34 million passengers during the 16 days of the Olympics.

With strict stopping restrictions to be

enforced on major road routes, many businesses have decided to cut their losses. The Homebush Home Improvement Centre, a discus throw from Olympic Park, is currently running a plaintive radio commercial plugging a "Closing-Down- For-The-Olympics Sale".

Meanwhile, the propaganda machine at the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Socog) spews out dozens of upbeat pronouncements daily. One recent press release was headed: "Construction of cladding support for Olympic cauldron proceeding on schedule." Well, thank Heavens for that.

At least the widely admired sports venues cannot be faulted - apart from the weeds that have plagued the canoeing course, the freak cross-winds that have upset sprinters in Stadium Australia and the sharks that triathletes fear await them in Sydney Harbour.

And then there is the beach volleyball stadium. Regardless of whether or not the spectacle of scantily clad women bouncing around on the sand should even be an Olympic sport, it is difficult to fathom the rationale behind the decision to build a 10,000-seat temporary stadium on Bondi, Sydney's most famous and most popular beach. Why not mess up one of its 70 other beaches?

Yesterday a group of Japanese tourists in dark business suits were staring in puzzlement at the concrete and steel eyesore, which squats in the middle of the golden curve of sand like a gigantic spaceship. "It's a monstrosity; it's a disgrace," said Jean Bernabeu, a Frenchman who has lived in Bondi for 17 years. His wife, Regine, agreed. Peering at the stadium, which carves the beach and its promenade in two, she said: "The minister who gave the go-ahead should be locked up."

When the bulldozers moved in, several dozen Bondi residents briefly buried themselves in sand. If they can brave security that would do a South American dictator proud, protesters may give a repeat performance when the volleyball competitions start. And if the spring tides do their worst, it is not inconceivable that the entire structure could be washed away.

Spectators are to be prohibited from taking their own food and drink into venues, unless they have a doctor's letter detailing their special dietary needs. Baby strollers will be banned, too, together with ice boxes, banners, skateboards and flags of non-participating countries. When Socog tried to deflect objections, pointing out that the same regulations were in force at the Atlanta Games, some locals retorted that Sydney was "not the Deep South".

One columnist complained in the Sydney Morning Herald that "our clever people seem to have been shoved aside by a bunch of bullies who have decreed that the friendly, relaxed city of Sydney is to become a military boot camp for the duration of the Olympics". A postcard doing the rounds advises: "Keep taking your medication. Our Olympic visitors must suspect nothing."

It is not difficult to see why people who danced in the streets when Sydney won the bid are no longer filled with unadulterated pleasure. Sports fans were disgusted to learn that half a million of the best Olympic tickets had been reserved for VIPs. The city has been a building site for years; the scaffolding and cranes are only just starting to come down, and the din of jack hammers still fills the air. Property prices have boomed so spectacularly that many Sydneysiders have been forced to move out to the suburbs. Sydney's least advantaged residents are suffering most. There are now 35,000 registered homeless, four times more than eight years ago, partly as a result of skyrocketing rents. The civic authorities have no intention of bussing them off the streets, which was Atlanta's controversial solution. But a protocol drawn up to protect the homeless from harassment will be impossible to enforce, according to welfare groups.

Socog has grown practised at dodging the flak. It is convinced that the bad publicity will subside as soon as the serious business of breaking world records gets under way. But will it? Despite aggressive efforts by the Australian government to eradicate the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Craig Fleming, the Australian Olympic Committee's anti-doping manager, has warned that the Games could be the "dirtiest" in Olympic history.

Notwithstanding all the gripes, most people want Sydney 2000 to be a success. For one thing, this is a sports-mad country that is hoping to walk off with 60 medals. For another, Sydneysiders are itching to show off their beautiful city - and to prove to their jealous compatriots in Melbourne and the other state capitals that they deserve all the fuss and attention.

Australians are anxious to demonstrate that, despite the failure of last year's referendum on becoming a republic, theirs is a mature, independent nation capable of organising a big international event. They want to show that the country has more to offer than sporting prowess and some brilliant scenery; perhaps the Olympics Arts Festival, with its scores of productions and exhibitions, will help to achieve that.

But there is one word that is only uttered in hushed tones: rain. The Olympics are being held in early spring because the Australian summer was deemed too humid. Last year, the second fortnight of September was cold, windy and wet. Games organisers must be offering up daily sacrifices to the rain gods.