Howard will not open Sydney Olympics

Prime Minister John Howard announced today that he will not officially open the Sydney Olympics next year, saying that he was putting national unity ahead of "personal satisfaction."

Prime Minister John Howard announced today that he will not officially open the Sydney Olympics next year, saying that he was putting national unity ahead of "personal satisfaction."

Howard said he would inform the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) that they should ask the International Olympic Committee to invite Governor-General Sir William Deane to perform the opening ceremony as Australia's vice-regal head of state.

Both republicans and monarchists had put pressure on Howard to make the decision after he supported the winning monarchist cause in a republic referendum held last weekend.

"Although I believe that the reasons I have consistently advanced since 1993 - when Mr (Paul) Keating was prime minister - for the prime minister of Australia to open the Games remain as valid today as before, the decision I have taken will prevent party politics intruding any further into this great sporting event," he said in a statement.

"In the days following the recent referendum, many in the Australian Labor Party have made it plain that they would be making the opening of the Olympic Games by me a political issue.

"Ensuring that the games will be a great unifying national occasion is much more important to me than any personal satisfaction I might derive from performing the opening ceremony. That is why I have taken the decision."

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, leader of the Australian Labor Party, said through a spokesman that Howard's decision was proper.

"This is the correct decision and it's about time," Beazley's spokesman said. "The prime minister should never have been trying to elbow the governor-general.

"It is a pity the prime minister has made this decision under protest and not as a matter of propriety."

Howard said he had already discussed his decision with Deane, who was willing to accept the IOC's invitation. The IOC has said it will accept whoever SOCOG put forward.

Howard said he would advise Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Australia's official head of state, of his views on the opening ceremony when he meets her during the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in South Africa.

His decision came on the eve of his departure for the four-day summit, during which he will again play the governor-general's role.

A SOCOG spokesman said the organization would accept the decision.

"Obviously in the light of the prime minister's decision, the previous SOCOG board decision is redundant," he said.

"The matter will go back to the SOCOG board next week. It's fair to speculate that the board will endorse the choice of Sir William Deane."

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