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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Sydney Finale Signals Start of New Era for IOC

October 02, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — In a ceremony marked by the kitsch of drag queens and performers in oversize kangaroo costumes, and climaxing with fireworks roaring from Olympic Stadium to Sydney Harbor, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch brought the Sydney Games to a close Sunday by declaring them the best ever.

"Thank you and goodbye. Au revoir. Adios. A bientot," Samaranch said in an ad-libbed valedictory that not only drew down the curtain on a memorable Games for Australia and for the Olympic movement but that also signaled the beginning of the end of his 20 years atop the IOC.

Samaranch, 80, retires in July. "These are my last Games as president of the International Olympic Committee," he told a crowd of about 110,000 at Olympic Stadium. "They could not have been better.

"Therefore, I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever." The stadium shook with a thunderous response.

The Sydney Games showcased the spectacular growth in size and influence that the Olympic movement has enjoyed under Samaranch. At the same time, they illustrated the formidable challenges that the movement must confront as it moves now to consider a future without him.

The most visible challenge: the fight against doping. At least 40 athletes were caught in pre-Games doping tests; a minimum of eight tested positive in Sydney. Five lost medals.

But, after the commercial excesses of the 1996 Atlanta Games and the failures there of transportation and technology, and after two years of scrutiny resulting from the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, the Sydney Games showed that the Olympics can still get done, can still be fun and can provide--perhaps more than any other platform--incredibly potent symbolic opportunities to bring people together.

The Games also served in a peculiar way to humanize Samaranch to many. Insiders have long known him as warm and gracious, but he has often seemed to others aloof, even autocratic. His wife died just hours after the opening ceremony; he flew back to Spain to bury her, then returned to Sydney.

At Sunday's closing ceremony, he was welcomed by warm applause.

He started his speech by telling the crowd, "Seven years ago, I said, 'And the winner is . . . Sydney. Well, what can I say now? Maybe with my Spanish accent: Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" And the crowd roared back with the now-familiar response: "Oi! Oi! Oi!"

No city could have provided a more beautiful backdrop for the Games or friendlier volunteers--46,000 of them--and no city embraced the Games the way they were embraced here.

About 7 million tickets, a record 92% of the total available, were sold. Those who couldn't get in took to the streets to watch the events on big-screen TVs set up around town. A party atmosphere prevailed.

The trains mostly ran on time. Even the weather cooperated; it was mostly sunny during the Games.

"People will be able to duplicate these sorts of facilities," said Syed Shahid Ali, the IOC member from Pakistan. "But they will not be able to duplicate this atmosphere."

"A magical feeling," said Michael Knight, president of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and state minister for the Olympics.

As they did in the opening ceremony, athletes from South and North Korea walked together Sunday in the close. "Korea" was again represented by a single flag.

"I would never have expected this, to be quite honest. I was quite moved," former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger declared on his way out of the stadium Sunday night, adding that the joint march "gives some hope" for peace on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere around the world.

In another symbolic act of reconciliation that will long be remembered, Cathy Freeman, an Australian of Aboriginal descent, was picked to light the caldron that burned over the Olympic Stadium throughout the Games. She then won the women's 400-meters, setting off a national celebration.

On Sunday night, the Australian band Midnight Oil sang its protest anthem, "Beds Are Burning," and its members wore black clothes bearing in white the word "Sorry," offering the symbolic apology for the treatment of Aborigines that conservative Prime Minister John Howard has declined to issue.

Samaranch paid particular tribute during the ceremony to "our friends" from the "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities." The islands are north of Australia's mainland. "You have helped to write a glorious chapter in the history of Australia," Samaranch said.

Many members of the IOC, too, reveled in the moment--taking pains to praise Samaranch even as they paused to reflect on what lies ahead, including the jockeying to succeed him. The next president will be elected in July at an IOC session in Moscow.

Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge and Montreal tax lawyer Dick Pound are widely considered the leading candidates. Also mentioned as possible successors: Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles, Kim Un Yong of South Korea and R. Kevan Gosper of Australia.

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