IOC official downplays Sydney troubles as media hype

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The Independent Online

Don't believe all that bad news coming out of Sydney as the Summer Olympics approach - it's all media hype and political grandstanding.

That's the message from a top International Olympic Committee official on the eve of a crucial review of Sydney's preparations for the games.

With less than five months before the opening ceremony, Sydney appears mired in trouble - from ticketing controversies to labour disputes to budget problems to threats of violent protests by Aboriginals.

These issues and others will be addressed on Tuesday when Sydney organisers make their latest progress report to the IOC executive board.

IOC vice president Dick Pound said there's nothing to be worked up about.

"Reading the local media and listening to local politicians - assuming you have the stomach or patience for either - you might be forgiven for thinking we have serious problems, that sponsors are pulling out, that the organising committee is in disarray, that we are facing serious financial problems," Pound said.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "We are set for one of the most spectacular Olympic Games we have ever seen. The Sydney organisers are further ahead, and have a better handle on the issues than any previous Olympic organising committee."

Speaking at a sports business conference in London, Pound said Sydney's problems have been exaggerated by the Australian media.

"The Australian public's passion for sport, plus the fact that there are four competing daily newspapers in Sydney, have put the organising committee under the spotlight, and in the tender hands of the local media on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

"This is a spotlight that no company in the world could endure, where every single issue is analyzed, not always objectively nor even knowledgeably, under the microscope and dissected. In the end though, it will all come together and our Australian partners will put on one of the greatest shows the world has ever seen."

Pound's comments mark a big change from his pronouncements at the last IOC board meeting in Sydney two months ago.

Then, Pound blasted Sydney organisers for having a "dysfunctional relationship" with sponsors, treating sponsorship dollars as a "milk cow," and setting wildly unrealistic marketing revenue targets.

Sydney organising chief Michael Knight accused Pound of using the outburst to boost his chances of succeeding Juan Antonio Samaranch as IOC president next year. The next day, the two men exchanged kisses on the cheek in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation.

Since then, reports of Sydney's troubles have only continued:

- Protesters have vowed to lay down in front of bulldozers when construction of the beach volleyball venue starts next month at the famous Bondi Beach.

- The rowing and canoeing venue at Penrith has been plagued by floating weeds.

- Sydney's train and bus drivers have threatened to go on strike during the games.

- International non-rights-holding broadcasters have protested against plans by Sydney organizers to ban them from Homebush, the main Olympic precint where the majority of sports venues are located.

- Sydney's ticketing policy has run into more controversy, with organizers forced to drop plans to make Visa credit cards the only form of payment in the next round of ticket sales.

But the biggest worry comes from threats of violent protests by Aboriginal activists during the September 15-October 1 games.

The warnings followed the leak of a governmment report stating that accounts of the estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families - known as the "stolen generation" - were exaggerated.

"If you want to see burning cars and burning buildings, then come over," said senior Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins.

Kevan Gosper, Australia's IOC executive board member, said he was deeply concerned by the developments and hoped the IOC could File Stouse its influence to calm the situation.

Meanwhile, the IOC will address several other matters during its three-day board meeting:

- The IOC may consider East Timor's request to participate in the Sydney Games. The former Indonesian province, which voted for independence last year and is under United Nations administration, does not fulfill the criteria for Olympic recognition. But some officials would like to find a way for East Timor to be represented, at least symbolically, in Sydney.

- The IOC is likely to move forward by two weeks the dates of the 2004 Athens Games - from August to July - to avoid conflicts with European soccer competitions.

- The IOC will review the work of the new World Anti-Doping Agency, including plans to conduct 2,500 out-of-competition drug tests before the Sydney Games, and assess the continuing research into developing a reliable test for the banned hormone EPO.

- Organisers of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City will report to the IOC board by video conference on Wednesday.

- The IOC board will hold joint meetings with leaders of the Olympic winter and summer sports federations. The 27 summer sports are expected to decide how they will split up more than $100 million in television revenues from the Sydney Games.