Great flights of fancy and human

Sydney is buzzing - and it's not just in anticipation of next year's Olympic Games, as Martin Symington discovered

After a 30-hour flight from London via Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne, I finally unwind in my decompression chamber, a 27th-floor room at the Regent Hotel overlooking one of the finest, and most familiar, vistas in the world. The harbour, with its ferries and sailing dinghies; the Opera House, a 1970s icon which has somehow managed to avoid looking dated; the Harbour Bridge, crawling with ant-sized tourists who have each paid A$20 to climb its great "coat hanger" arch.

For jet-lag therapy, I decide to pitch straight in and join a phalanx of commuters on Circular Quay, the harbour hub a couple of minutes' walk from the hotel. We file aboard one of the old green-and-cream ferries and whoosh out across the harbour, towards Kirribilli point in North Sydney.

The view back towards the city centre is of dizzy skyscrapers and plate glass, gleaming out from a forest of scaffolding and cranes. "All that building work does rather bugger up the view," apologises Jacky, one of my fellow passengers, a proud Sydneysider on her way home from work.

Next day I take a taxi to the Sydney 2000 Olympic headquarters, and am late for my meeting because of a traffic snarl-up. "These new roads being built have completely buggered up the traffic," echoes my driver.

But Scott Crebin, media information co-ordinator for the Olympics, is airily optimistic. He tells me: "We are nearly there, as far as the transport infrastructure is concerned. The new Olympic Park railway station at Homebush Bay is open, the new airport rail link is virtually done, and by early next year, just about all of Sydney's new roads will be complete. And before the start of the Games, believe me, every single crane and piece of scaffolding on that skyline will be gone."

Homebush Bay, the main Olympic site, is 16km west of the city centre. At the beginning of the decade, when Sydney was bidding for the games, it was just a tract of landfill - a dumping-ground for industrial waste, ripe for regeneration.

Crebin enthuses: "Go and have a look at it now. No other Olympics in history has been so well prepared such a long time in advance, and with such weight given to environmental considerations, and with long-term benefit beyond the Olympic fortnight in mind."

Later, up at Homebush Bay, I am duly impressed by the expansive acres of landscaped greenery and ornamental lakes, in which the Olympic architectural behemoths sit like arrivals from another galaxy. I suppose that these domes and contoured crucibles supported by shiny cables and steel masts will become commonplace design styles in the 21st century.

Stadium Australia, curved like a monumental Pringle crisp, will host the track and field events, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. I join an assortment of American, Brazilian and Australian tourists on a stadium tour, led by a preppy young guide called Debbie. She whisks us, by lift, high up to the top of the east stand, from where we gaze out over a rippling sea of 110,000 empty blue and turquoise seats.

"The design reflects the sea, surf, waves and coastline - these are things close to every Sydneysider's heart," confides Debbie. "And the roof, it suggests an Aussie bush hat."

For me, this is an analogy too far - perhaps it needs the aid of some giant swinging corks. But Debbie is still in full flow: "The ceiling and roof support each other with a cantilever system. Rainwater is channelled from the roof to water the turf. After the Games, the two end stands will be removed, taking the capacity down to a cosy 80,000. We might then fit a retractable roof. Wouldn't that be a wow in a stadium this size?"

For me, the real wow is that the stadium was completely finished, to budget (A$650m), 18 months ahead of the Games. It has already hosted several major sporting events, including this year's Bledisloe Cup rugby union match between Australia and the All Blacks. Next, I hop on the Olympic Explorer bus that tours Homebush Bay, stopping at key points. At the four- pool Aquatic Centre, which was finished five years ago and has seating for 17,500 spectators, a noisy junior event is in progress.

I check out the space-age 20,000-seater SuperDome, venue for events such as gymnastics and basketball, and learn that its coronet of spires supports the world's largest rooftop solar-power system. The almost-finished Tennis Centre is due to host the New South Wales Open in January.

Back on the bus, the driver/ guide Bob tells passengers that Homebush Bay will have accommodation for 25,000 Olympic athletes and officials. Half of this is temporary, but the rest will transmute into a new "des- residential district of Sydney to be called Newington, which will be the most environmentally friendly suburb in the world".

There are accolades galore from environmental groups for Newington's recycling, waste-management and energy-saving systems. However, Bob's piece de resistance is to tell us about the discovery in 1992 of the rare and threatened "green and golden bell frog" in a former brick-pit where the Olympic Tennis Centre was to have been built. Amphibian rights won the day and the centre was re-located (which is why it is not yet finished).

Over the next few days, I find that there is a whirr and a buzz about Sydney, which is about much more than the Olympics. The cranes and roadworks, I discover, are merely facets of an economy on a roll. Property prices are booming, hotels have had stylish facelifts, and there are zappy new restaurants and stylish bars springing up everywhere.

Over a bottle of Hunter Valley Semillon at the fearlessly post- modernist Kirketon bar in trendy Darlinghurst district, Ian, a bred-in-the-bone Sydneysider friend, put it like this: "Listen, the Olympics are simply fast-tracking what was already happening in Sydney anyway. Homebush would have been developed - the whole city needed a makeover."

Helena, a Sydney money-market dealer, went further: "It is not just the Olympics that are making things happen here. There's the millennium coming up. Then, after the games, there is Australia's 100th anniversary of Federation on 1 January 2001. That is when we should have become a republic. If only those total idiots in Canberra..."

These comments exposed a raw nerve. Amid all the sophisticated style and panache which successful young Sydneysiders claim for themselves and their great city, there is a palpable sense of disappointment about the outcome of last month's referendum when Australians voted to retain the Queen as their head of state. Yes, I find myself repeating over the course of my stay, I do understand that the result was a case of scare tactics and divide and conquer by the monarchist camp. And sure, I do believe that the overwhelming majority of Australians do indeed want, without any disrespect to Her Majesty, to stand confidently on their own two feet.

"Just as we shake off the idea that Sydney is all Opera House, kangaroos and koalas, we go and make fools of ourselves in front of the whole world," complains Ian.

On my last evening we dine at one of Sydney's top restaurants, the Bel Mondo, down on The Rocks, the old convict area on the harbourfront. The seven-course degustazione menu is a zestful fusion of Italian tradition with fresh local produce, such as cannelloni of spinach, and ricotta and egg-plant with grilled yabbies (Australian freshwater crayfish). Somebody quips: "So, you thought an Australian seven-course meal was a meat pie and a six-pack?"

Thoughts turn back to the Olympics, and I find there is one niggle at the back of local people's minds. One Sydney cliche that nobody wants to get rid of is the perennial blue sky, sunshine and surf. But September, the equivalent of the Northern Hemisphere's March, is on the cusp of winter and spring. It can be cool, grey and wet. Now that really would bugger things up.

SYDNEY

GETTING THERE

Martin Symington flew to Sydney with Malaysian Airlines (tel: 020-7341 2020), which flies from London Heathrow and Manchester via Kuala Lumpur.

Return fares are from pounds 750 if you travel after 16 January 2000. Travelbag (tel: 01420 88724) offers return fares on the same route for pounds 699, as long as you book before 31 December.

He stayed at the Regent Hotel (tel: 0800 9178795, Freephone from the UK) where double rooms start at pounds 98 per night until the end of January, thereafter rising to pounds 150, or pounds 186 for rooms with a harbour view.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Australian Tourist Commission, Department 1370, Tendon Road, Sunderland SR9 9XZ (tel: 09068 633235, calls are 60p per minute) or visit its website: www.australia.com

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