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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | It's Torch and
Go | Bill Plaschke

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

It's time for the Olympic motto of "swifter, higher, stronger" to be changed to "smaller, less crowded, shorter restroom lines."

September 15, 2000|Bill Plaschke

SYDNEY, Australia — Imagine a Super Bowl.

Now imagine it with 199 teams.

Picture a World Series.

Now picture it as a best-of-300.

Hold both events at the same time.

In the same place.

With one entrance.

And no parking lot.

Every day for two weeks.

Welcome to the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Not to mention, the longest women's restroom lines in the history of paper seat covers.

Enjoy tonight's spectacular and emotional opening ceremony.

But no, I absolutely do not wish you were here.

There's no more room.

The lines are like the Rocket Rods during a Disneyland promotion.

That's for the Olympic Park gift shop.

The crowds are intimidating, overwhelming, suffocating.

That's for those Olympic swimmers trying to squeeze into the practice pool.

Those leaving Olympic Park for the train station late the other night were stuck in a 90-minute human gridlock.

That was two days before any event.

"This is bigger than anyone can understand, much less imagine," said John MacAloon, University of Chicago professor and Olympic historian. "If we're not careful, this thing is going to collapse under its own weight."

The weight of 140,000 people . . . and that's only athletes and accredited personnel.

The weight of 500,000 people . . . and that's only one day at Olympic Park.

"Certainly, the IOC will reconsider putting some limits on this, because you just cannot go on this way," said Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee.

The first problem is obvious every morning you step into downtown Sydney streets filled with thousands of people wearing colorful badges.

Shopkeepers wearing badges. Street musicians wearing badges. Bums wearing badges.

Those are not tickets or souvenirs, those are credentials. There have been more than 21,000 issued, to everyone from media types to athlete masseuses.

Desperate to either chronicle or hang with some of the last vestiges of true sport, the outsiders are trampling that vision in the process.

There are just too darn many of us.

To chronicle the Super Bowl, considered the U.S.'s biggest sporting attraction, this newspaper usually sends four or five people.

To chronicle the Olympics, with events that separately would be considered among the U.S.'s most obscure sporting attractions, we have sent 16.

"A bigger problem is the ancillary people," MacAloon said. "Too many junketing reporters. How you get control of that without alienating the media, that's a challenge."

Now leave those streets, climb on a jammed train, exit 30 minutes later into a suburban concrete swamp upon which has been built seven arenas or stadiums for the competitors.

Then you realize the second problem.

There also are too many of them.

Too many athletes. Too many sports.

Field hockey players here, water poloists (is that right?) over there, people who compete with weapons, people who compete with ribbons, people who have traveled 10,000 miles to jump on a trampoline.

There will be gold medals won by unknown people in unknown sports for entirely unknown reasons.

There will be medals lost by people who leave town before we know they were here.

There will be people who competed four years ago in Atlanta, and will compete again here, and again four years from now in Athens, and we will still not know they were there.

The opening ceremony will feature not an athletes' march, but a stampede.

When the Olympics were in Los Angeles in 1984, there were 6,797 competitors.

This year, there will be nearly 11,000 competing in 300 events.

No wonder we didn't have any traffic problems.

"They've got to keep the number of athletes capped," MacAloon said.

This can easiest be done by throwing out sports.

This is supposed to be about the best in the world, right? Take those sports where the best in the world are not competing, and throw them out.

Boxing? Gone. Baseball? Gone.

One could even make a case for the expulsion of men's soccer and men's and women's tennis, which could send their best players but don't.

Part of the growth can be traced to the growth of women's sports, which is good. But maybe they should rethink this ballroom dancing thing while they have a chance.

"Just being an Olympian, that is what we're going to celebrate these next two weeks," said Liz Smylie, spokeswoman for the Sydney Olympic Organizing Committee.

But when there are so many Olympians, just being an Olympian has changed.

When there are so many people filtering and chronicling their atmosphere, that atmosphere has changed.

Tonight, the Olympic caldron will be lighted over what is still, in many small ways, one of the last true things.

More eternal will be the challenge of keeping it that way.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Golden State

California, the most populous state in the nation, is also well ahead when it comes to producing Olympic athletes. Almost 25% of those competing in Sydney listed hometowns in California.

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*Projected by U.S. Olympic Committee. Actual figure will not be available until Games are completed.

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Sources: U.S. Olympic Committee; The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics; Associated Press

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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