Progress overshadowed by scandals for Sydney Olympic organisers

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The Independent Online

With about nine months to go before the opening ceremonies, the return of sport as the central focus of the Olympics will not come soon enough for the organisers of the Sydney 2000 Games.

With about nine months to go before the opening ceremonies, the return of sport as the central focus of the Olympics will not come soon enough for the organisers of the Sydney 2000 Games.

Despite being ahead of schedule on venue construction, transport and other planning, it seemed that in 1999 no news was good news for the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

Even a string of international victories and tumbling records by Australian sportspeople was not enough to lift a pall of public anger which settled over the committee after a series of scandals and blunders - some beyond its control and some of its own making.

The year started badly with news breaking over the scandal over International Olympic Committee members accepting lavish gifts and travel from bidding cities. While Salt Lake City was the primary focus of bribery allegations, it was almost inevitable that Sydney would become caught up.

Sydney became tainted when Australian Olympic Committee head John Coates admitted that on the eve of the IOC vote at which Sydney won the Games, he offered two African delegates 35,000 Australian dollars (22,500 US dlrs) each to fund sporting bodies in their countries.

The scandal became a running sore in Australia when IOC member Phil Coles, who was reprimanded by the IOC for accepting travel and hospitality from Salt Lake City bidders, refused to step down from the Sydney organizing committee board.

Pressure on Coles intensified midyear when it was revealed dossiers including personal notes on IOC members which he had prepared had been passed to Salt Lake City bid officials. After community outrage and none-too-subtle pressure behind the scenes, Coles in June resigned as a SOCOG vice-president.

SOCOG president Michael Knight blamed the IOC scandal for souring public enthusiasm for the Games and making sponsors wary. In May he announced organizers had cut the expected revenue from the Games by 71 million Australian dollars (about 46 million US dlrs), including almost 50 million Australian dollars (32.5 million US dlrs) in sponsorship.

Knight could not blame the IOC for a fiasco over student marching bands at the Games' opening ceremony.

In June, Knight canceled a contract that would have supplied a 2,000-strong marching band made up mostly of American and Japanese students. The move was apparently triggered by a talkback radio campaign which demanded the band members be Australian.

But Knight was forced into an embarrassing backdown when band organizers took SOCOG to court for breach of contract, and agreed to pay American company World Projects Corp. an extra 1 million Australian dollars (650,000 US dlrs).

Worse for SOCOG in the public eye was a debacle late in the year over ticketing.

After SOCOG promised 3.5 million tickets would be available through a ballot system, Australians lodged a record more than 320,000 applications, paying SOCOG around 180 million Australian dollars (115 million US dlrs) in advance for the chance to see the events they nominated.

But in December it was revealed SOCOG advertising campaigns and promotional material had been misleading and only 3 million tickets had been offered to the general public. Worse still, a pool of 840,000 of the best Games tickets had been set aside for high rollers prepared to pay premium prices.

The public was outraged. Critics included the public face of the SOCOG's ticketing campaign, cricket hero Mark Taylor, champion swimmer Ian Thorpe and Prime Minister John Howard.

SOCOG finished the year in damage control, firing ticketing chief Paul Reading - who described himself as SOCOG's "ugly face of capitalism" - and releasing 525,000 more tickets to the public.

Furthering SOCOG's woes have been continuing problems meeting the 2.7 million Australian dollars (1.75 million US dlrs) budget.

In December, SOCOG again revised the amount of forecast sponsorship revenue, this time by up to 100 million Australian dollars (65 million US dlrs) and appointed a management team to find areas to slash spending to make up the difference.

Also in December, Reebok pulled out as a main sponsor of the Sydney Games and initiated legal proceedings against SOCOG over clothing rights. But the IOC and the local committee quickly announced that Nike would take Reebok's place.

Even as the scandals rattled through SOCOG's inner-city headquarters, the main Olympic site at Homebush Bay took on the buzz of excitement as the first major sporting events were held to test facilities and transport.

The main Olympic Stadium Australia was opened in March and coped comfortably with crowds of more than 100,000 people. Throughout the year it hosted international events including rugby, a National Football League preseason game between Denver and San Diego and soccer matches.

Also at Homebush, Thorpe was the hometown hero of the Pan Pacific swimming championships in August in the pool which will be used for the Olympics. More than a dozen world records were broken, including by Thorpe, South Africa's Penny Heyns and American Lenny Krayzelburg.

Almost all venues have been completed, and a comprehensive test event schedule is about half way through and on track to have every venue tried out by the time the Games start on September 15.

Sports-mad at the worst of times, Australia had an exceptional year in 1999, winning world cups in cricket and rugby, tennis' Davis Cup and scoring international victories in women's hockey and netball.

With public awareness growing that the Games are just short months away, Sydney organizers will be hoping euphoria at hosting the world's largest sporting event will replace the sour taste left after 1999.