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After Weeks of Buildup-- and Two Days of Competition-- the Games Get a Formal Introduction

IOC hopes corruption scandal of Salt Lake City and transportation woes of Sydney will be forgotten with the pageantry of the opening ceremony and beauty of the triathlon.


SYDNEY, Australia — It was with a great sense of relief that Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, was expected to declare the 2000 Summer Olympics open today.

"Finally," one can imagine him uttering under his breath. Let the games begin.

Samaranch and other IOC members couldn't wait. The last 2 1/2 years since the closing ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, have been neither fun nor games for the committee, trapped as if in a spider's web in the worst corruption scandal in its 104-year history. The embattled lords of the rings are more eager than ever for the athletes to become the focus of the media.

Soccer didn't wait. That sport opened 48 hours before the opening ceremony with games in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra.

Other events on the 28-sport program start today--Friday afternoon in Los Angeles and Saturday morning in Sydney, which is 18 hours ahead of the West Coast--with the new Olympic entry of triathlon producing the first medalists.

If the weather cooperates, and that is not a given, considering that this is the first Summer Olympics to begin in winter (take our word for it or consult your geography textbook under Southern Hemisphere), this will not only be a debut for women's triathlon--the men compete 24 hours later--but also for Sydney.

More than 200 years after the English arrived here--seeking a new penal colony after losing their grip on America--and 40,000 years since it was inhabited by Aborigines, the city has remained something of a secret to the rest of the world because of its remoteness. It's 14 hours and 10 minutes by air from Pacific Rim neighbor Los Angeles.

Thanks to television, which will make the Games accessible to four-fifths of the world's population, the word is about to be out, starting today when triathletes dive into the emerald but chilly waters of Sydney Harbor, one of the world's most magnificent, and then bike and run on a course that has the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House as backdrops. One can only guess what the winning time will be, but it's a certainty that media commentators will set Olympic records for breathless adjectives.

For 4 million Sydneysiders, the beauty of their city, both natural and man-made, is no revelation. All the same, they are expected to be enthralled by the women's triathlon because of the possibility that Australians will finish 1-2-3. Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, oi, oi, oi.

Eight years after Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson last appeared in an Olympics, M.J. remain the most celebrated initials. Besides triathlon favorite Michellie Jones, other potential gold medalists who could share monogrammed towels include American sprinters Marion Jones, trying to become the first track and field athlete to win five events in a single Olympics, and Michael Johnson, trying to become the first man to repeat in the 400 meters, and France's Marie-Jose Perec, who has already become the first woman to accomplish that feat and is now going for a threepeat.

Her main competition in the 400, and one of Jones' in the 200, comes from Cathy Freeman, who runs for two flags--one Australian, one Aboriginal. But the athlete most likely to emerge from these Games as the home country's hero is I.T.--Ian Thorpe.

As in 1956, when Australians last played host to the Games, in Melbourne, they are counting on their swimmers to rule the water. The names then were Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose and Lorraine Crapp. Today, they are Thorpe, Susie O'Neill, Michael Klim and Kieren Perkins.

But you can't have protagonists without antagonists. With the fall of the Wall, the Cold War has been replaced by a Wet War between Australia and the United States, which boasts Lenny Krayzelburg, Tom Dolan, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.

Thompson has five gold medals from two previous Olympics, more than any other U.S. female summer athlete in history, and needs two more total medals to give her eight and a tie her with swimmer Shirley Babashoff in that category.

U.S. women's teams are back for more gold after their successes in 1996 with many of the same women, including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain in soccer, Dot Richardson and Lisa Fernandez in softball and Teresa Edwards--playing in her fifth Olympics--and Lisa Leslie in basketball.

The Magnificent Seven women gymnasts, however, are merely middling, and the Dream Team, although still far superior to the rest with Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton and others, no longer wants to be called the Dream Team. The new Dream Team? How about the Williams sisters in doubles tennis? And don't forget miracle man cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Tom Lasorda, manager of the U.S. baseball team that will be hard-pressed to win a medal, will drape all 1,200-plus athletes and officials in the U.S. delegation in his tried-and-true red, white and Dodger blue.

Did we mention that there are athletes here from countries besides the United States and Australia?

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