For the past 60 days Australians have watched with mounting anticipation as thousands of bearers carry the Olympic Torch on a winding route through this vast and ancient country. The bearers - mainly nominated by their communities for outstanding service or triumph over adversity - have been people of all ages and backgrounds, including the wheelchair-bound, community workers, Down's syndrome children, former Olympic athletes, and even 109- year-old John Lockett, Australia's oldest man, who was born five years before the modern Olympic movement began.
Starting at Ayers Rock, the torch will have been carried by 11,000 people through all Australia's states before arriving at the Games in Sydney next month; it has travelled on a surfboard through the waves at Bondi Beach and underwater at the Great Barrier Reef.
But it is not just the route and the bearers of the torch that have caught Australian imagination. For the boomerang-shaped symbol, with a top crafted to resemble Sydney Opera House, is now burning with a "green" flame. It has been specially designed to save energy and to cause as little pollution as possible - to introduce what are billed as the world's first Green Games.
This year not all the records set at the Olympics will be sporting ones. Sydney has already built the world's largest solar- powered suburb to house the athletes; used pioneering technology to clean up one of Australia's most contaminated sites, where it will host the Games; and helped bring an endangered frog back from the edge of extinction. And the Games have already notched up a major victory for the environment, by convincing Coca-Cola to change over to environmentally friendly refrigeration worldwide.
This year's Games are to be the first test of a new policy, hammered out by the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations Environment Programme, that makes the environment the third "pillar" of the Olympic movement after sport and culture. The idea, in the words of the great Australian runner Herb Elliott, is to "make the Olympic movement bigger than just a lot of athletes running around in circles once every four years".
Sydney, working with Greenpeace, made the environment the centrepiece of its successful bid for the Games. Back in the early 1990s the environmental pressure group was among 100 entrants to an anonymous competition to design the proposed Olympic Village. Most of the other entries were from leading architectural and development firms, but the group's design - for a car- free, solar-powered village using recycling and other green technologies - won.
The design was then made part of Sydney's bid, promoted with the help of Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise and other celebrities in Monte Carlo in 1993. They presented the idea of the "Green Games" as the unique selling point of the city's concept and won, beating the favourite, Peking. "The Olympic Games in the year 2000 was awarded to the city of Sydney, Australia, partly because of the consideration it gave to environmental matters," said Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee.
Greenpeace then helped draw up tough environmental guidelines for the Games to prove the green technologies worked and to display them to a world audience. Sydney started by cleaning up the site for the Games, at Homebush Bay to the west of its harbour, in Australia's biggest ever land reclamation project. Over a fifth of the 760 hectare (1,800 …