And They're off! Diving in» an Australian Swimming Phenom, American Gold Medals and a Spectacular Ring of Fire Mark the First Days of the Olympic Games

Article excerpt

Somewhere amid the endless opening procession of fruit-colored blazers, beaming under their hats, were the faces we will get to know so well over the coming days and weeks: the hard-bodied sprinter squeezing out the last few hundredths of a second standing between the human race and the practical limits of two-legged propulsion; the ponytailed gamine who can hurl herself spinning and tumbling into the air and land with the authority of a jackknife stuck in a pine plank; the lithe swimmer with the easy smile and the golden California sun in her hair. Soon the pedestrian hordes of officials and also-rans will fall away and they will stand revealed to us, the fruit of our youth, bedecked with all the swooshes and milk mustaches their grateful nations can bestow. Australian swimming phenom Ian Thorpe solidified his hold on his countrymen with two gold medals and two world records in the first full day of competition. America settled for a silver medal in the men's 4 x 100 relays, but won with its quartet of golden-agers (averaging more than 27 years) in the women's version, while an unexpected victory in the 10-meter air-rifle competition lifted American Nancy Johnson from utter obscurity to a fleeting moment of relative obscurity.

It was a soul-stirring moment--actually, around four hours--when teams from 199 countries sauntered into Sydney's Olympic Stadium, reminding the world that globalization is fine for investment bankers but stops at the edge of the beach-volleyball court. The winds of politics brought the electrifying symbolic unification of the two Koreas under one flag, if only for the length of the opening ceremonies. But at every Olympics there are more flags to march under; even a country so deficient in patriotic bombast as to call itself Micronesia fielded a team this year for the first time, albeit with just seven athletes (including two who were listed as water-polo players, which didn't give them much of a shot, since a team numbers 13). Among nations of any size, only Afghanistan, on suspension by the International Olympic Committee for failure to allow any women to compete, was unrepresented.

And it is, truly, Australia's moment in the sun--sun that was provided, in part, by the expedient of starting daylight saving time two months early, during what is still winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The only other time Australia hosted the Olympics was in 1956, when it was inconceivably more remote from Europe and the United States, and before host nations had learned to regard the Games as a three-week-long worldwide advertisement for tourism. It was also before white Australians gave much thought to the Aborigines, who got the vote only in 1967. This year's opening ceremonies were largely given over to a celebration of Australia's ethnic diversity and Aboriginal culture in particular (along with power mowers, exotic marine life and a particularly baffling tribute to corrugated sheet metal, the material that was to the Outback as marble was to Venice). Representing both Aborigines and women, the great Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman ignited the Olympic cauldron from flames lit four months ago in Athens, a symbolic gesture of reconciliation that organizers no doubt hoped would help quell some of the threatened demonstrations by agitators for native rights.

Eager to initiate visitors into Australian culture, Sydney suspended pub-closing hours for the duration of the Games. …