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Judging the Merits of the Games


SYDNEY, Australia — They began with a bid for racial reconciliation in a whoop-de-do historical context and closed with an over-the-top Aussie block party and an "Omigawd-did-you-see-that!" fireworks spectacular, these Games of the XXVII Olympiad known to the world as Sydney 2000.

"Best ever," said Juan Antonio Samaranch, head of the IOC, bestowing his official seal of approval.

So were they?

How in the world can anyone tell?

What are the judging criteria?

The Atlanta Games four years ago were deemed a failure because of rampant commercialism, inadequate transportation and a terrorist's bomb that killed a woman and injured more than 100 other people.

The Los Angeles Games 16 years ago were judged a huge success--"Best ever," Samaranch said--because L.A.'s freeways worked, everybody who stayed in town had a great time and the organizers made lots of money.

So is the judgment based on getting through the fortnight without a catastrophe or serious glitches? And making money? Or is there more to it than that?

These were touted early as "the Green Games," a supposedly environmentally conscious extravaganza. Or a renewal of Melbourne's "Friendly Games" of 1956, Australians being as warm and fuzzy as koala bears.

The Green theme never really caught on and although the Aussies were unfailingly friendly, nobody quite thought of the actual Games in those terms.

Instead, they quickly became "the Dirty Games," as day after day athletes were prevented from competing, sent home or stripped of medals because of drug violations, intentional or otherwise.

The playground directors, as fabled sportswriter Red Smith liked to call Olympic big shots, said that just went to show what a great job they were doing at catching the cheaters.

Skeptics said that was baloney--a load of rubbish, if they were Aussie skeptics--that more athletes were getting away with violations than were being caught, that if all the guilty ones were caught, they'd have to call off the Games.

The people? The fans paying the freight?

Among all the things they were talking about, drugs and druggie athletes were far down the ladder. They were talking mostly about what a neat thing it was to be at the Olympics, how wonderful it was to see all these great athletes in these wonderful facilities, what a kick it was to be in Sydney.

If they were foreign visitors, they were saying how warm and fuzzy the Australians really were, if only it weren't for that annoying "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, Oi, Oi!"

If they were gracious hosts--and truly, there was no other kind here--they were saying that there was never a better time to be an Aussie. But they were also saying, the least bit anxiously, "So how do you think we're doing?"

Aussies like to portray themselves as gregarious but rugged individuals who do things their own way. Get them on the world stage, though, and they're just like everyone else. They want to make a good impression. Even Atlantans wanted to make a good impression. They just didn't know how.

What of the actual games, the competition? Surely that counts for something in the evaluating process. That's why they have these every-fourth-year blowouts, after all.

Well, as usual, that was a mixed bag. How could two weeks' worth of nonstop athletic activity be anything else?

There were some great races and some the world could have done nicely without. There were squeakers and there were routs. There were jubilant triumphs and excruciating disqualifications. There were victories by people who couldn't possibly win and losses by people who couldn't possibly lose.

Along with the competition, of course, came the agendas.

There were political statements, Cathy Freeman carrying an Aborigine flag entwined with the national flag of Australia, and gender issues, female pole vaulters competing in attention-grabbing outfits. (Of course, the female beach volleyball players made the vaulters look a little overdressed, and it has always puzzled me why the men can play in baggy shorts and shirts and the women have to wear bikinis.)

There was Marie-Jose Perec skipping her event, skipping town and bad-mouthing everyone she could think of, and there was Rulon Gardner saying how lucky he was, a farm boy from Wyoming, to have won a gold medal.

There was rude behavior by the athletes--the U.S. men's 400-meter relay team, for example--and there were magnanimous gestures exemplifying the true Olympic spirit. Consider Esther Kim qualifying to compete in taekwondo, giving up her spot to a teammate she said was better, Kay Poe, who was injured during qualifying, then consoling Poe after an unexpected first-round loss.

This is all pretty standard fare for an Olympics.

So what did it amount to?

Cathy Freeman isn't going to cure racism in Australia any more than Jackie Robinson did in America. Isms don't get cured by people running fast or sliding hard. But maybe Freeman, with her low-key approach from her high-profile stage, got some people thinking about the way they think.

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