Olympic Games: Plastic surgery for the party to end all parties

Gerard Wright in Sydney says if there are any problems with the Olympics, they will be denied
"EVERY OLYMPICS", a long-time observer of the quadrennial sports and cultural free-for-all noted earlier this year, "has an absolutely inconsequential decision that unites a nation."

So it was for the board of the Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee when they considered and approved the latest item on Ric Birch's program for the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. "International marching band: 2,000 members," was agreed upon without even considering the fine print. "International" was the safest, if not most linguistically accurate word Birch could have used to describe the cast he had in mind for this routine.

For if Birch, the Australian who choreographed the hellos and goodbyes at the 1984 and 1992 Olympics had been completely frank in his presentation, it would have read like this: "International (sic) marching band: 1,200 Americans, 300 Japanese, 500 Australians."

And had it read like that, it would probably never have got past the organising board headed by a minister of the government of New South Wales, a man with a bloodhound's sense of the merest shift of prevailing political zephyrs. But it didn't and it did, so it was not until mid-June that it became known that Australia's high school marching band members (not a massive constituency, it's true, but suddenly a very popular one) had been snubbed.

Snubbed. It is an evocative, all- purpose word with the added benefit of sitting nicely in a newspaper headline. Justified doesn't work as well. Birch claimed only the Americans had the 221/2in step - so important for all those tightly choreographed and intricate formations - down by rote. Besides, he said of his countrymen: "They're not good enough."

Sued is a word that gets everyone's attention. That is the status of the president of the organising committee, who is also the NSW Government Olympics Minister, Michael Knight. A small part of the rest of the world saw how things work in Sydney in certain circumstances. Talkback radio was full of recriminations; the newspaper letters pages were brimming.

Without consulting the parties most certain to be affected by the change in plans - the 1,200 American schoolchildren - Knight announced that the organising committee board had uninvited them from participating in the opening ceremony. Instead, they could play at other, unnamed Olympic events and on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. By way of further compensation, they would receive the surplus Drizabone raincoats from the Olympic torch relay. The Americans are seeking further compensation. Nine days ago they announced they would sue Knight and the organising committee for breach of contract.

This is a small but telling parable about Sydney's party to end all parties. If there is a problem, or even a perception of a problem, it will be kept quiet. If it cannot be kept quiet, it will be denied. If it cannot be denied, it will be fixed in the most politically expedient manner. Morality, altruism, tradition, loyalty or even contract law will have very little to do with the solution.

Next year's Olympics will very likely surpass the Centennial Games in Atlanta by just about every definition, not least of them being the real estate agent's credo: location, location, location. But then, so they should. The 1996 Games were run on a privately funded shoestring, and it showed in everything from the haphazardness of the transport to the seats and hoardings that were still being nailed down in the Olympic stadium on the day of the opening ceremony. Sydney will have the best Olympics its taxpayers' money can buy, and that is about A$4bn in largely government- funded venues and infrastructure. The Olympic Stadium alone, a joint government and private venture, costs A$690m, or about A$300m more than Atlanta spent on all its venues.

From one end of this massively sprawling city to the other, from the Sydney International Regatta centre in the west, to the rebuilding of Circular Quay at the very edge of the city on Sydney Harbour, it is as though the whole place has realised this is the photo-opportunity of a lifetime, and will undergo whatever plastic surgery is necessary to show a presentable face to the world.

As a recent visit made apparent, the bandages are still a long way from coming off. In the middle of the city, the footpaths are a maze of detours and scaffolding, as walkways are paved and widened, building facades are completed and yet another high-rise apartment block is started. In the inner south-eastern suburbs, three months after the event, a blaze of orange and blue tarpaulins mark the path of a catastrophic 30-minute hailstorm, which blasted fist-sized chunks of ice through windscreens and tiled roofs. Olympic building projects have sucked virtually all available manpower out of the city. The tarps will stay a while longer.

That may have contributed to a sort of mid-winter Olympic malaise which one resident described as "hype fatigue". Everyone knew it was coming, everyone knew it was going to be big and maybe even fun. But they were tired of hearing about Phil Coles and his real or imagined rigging of a system that all his mates had benefited from, about how Murdoch wanted the road cycling course changed because it would interfere with traffic movements to and from his Fox film studios, about how or even whether these fantastic venues would be used and paid for after the Games were over, about which events to choose, how to choose them, and how, then, to indicate that choice on a fiendishly difficult ticket-ordering form.

But barely a week after hearing this observation, it was clear that Sydney, indeed, Australia, had worked out just how to handle the whole thing. At the closing date of midnight on 16 July, there were 317,000 ticket applications for the first round of 3.5 million Olympic tickets worth an estimated A$350m. Easy. Bung it on the credit card. Worry about it later. Which is largely true for the rest of it as well.