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Down Wonders

With recognition of women's contributions, proper respect given to Aborigines and two Koreas marching as one, ceremony was correct in the correct way.

September 16, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — The opening ceremony for the 2000 Summer Olympics Friday before a capacity crowd of 110,000 at Olympic Stadium was the most politically correct in the history of the modern Games. I don't mean politically correct as we use the term in the United States, as in the avoidance of offending a person, group or institution no matter how offensive we might find them. I mean politically correct as in correct, you know, the right thing to do.

You wouldn't necessarily have expected that in Australia, where a prime minister who drowned was honored by having a swimming pool named after him, where a thieving and murdering bush ranger named Ned Kelly is considered a folk hero and where women in some parts of the country are known as sheilas.

But this opening ceremony was, as they say here, a bewdie. It honored women as they have never been honored before in the Olympic movement, honored Aborigines as they never have been honored before in Australia (track and field world champion Cathy Freeman represented both groups as the final torchbearer) and brought North and South Korea together for the first time in half a century.

All of that might have been symbolic, but what are the Olympic Games themselves but a symbol of a world united? Where else, except for perhaps an OPEC conference, will you find the United States so considerate of the United Arab Emirates as it was during the parade of athletes when members of the U.S. delegation--which numbers 1,008 at full strength--marched purposefully but (for the most part) orderly so as not to swallow the 11-member UAE delegation ahead of them.

The only nation of the 199 competing here over the next 16 days with more representatives than the United States is, of course, Australia. Its 1,029-member delegation marched into the stadium to a standing ovation as bands assembled from around the world played songs such as "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" and "Waltzing Matilda."

But Australians are expected to have--and give--their greatest thrills during these Games in the competitions, especially those contested in water. That is not true of the Koreans, who, no matter how many medals they might win, will not exceed their triumph of Friday.

The Koreans, 180 strong, divided again today but unified for a fleeting moment, marched behind a flag of their peninsula, hand in hand, like the name of the theme song for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.


Juan Antonio Samaranch, International Olympic Committee president, was among those who gave the Koreans a standing ovation, but he also deserved to take a bow. He has been trying to bring the feuding--they still have not declared a truce since the Korean War--countries together since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, failing miserably when the communist North not only declined an offer to play host to some sports but boycotted the Games in the South.

This brief reunification was a rare victory for the embattled 80-year-old president, who was defeated on another front this week when the IOC failed to add any new women despite electing 14 members to a body that now numbers 127.

But the sheilas had their day Friday, thanks to the Australian Olympic Committee.

Noting that the Sydney Games mark the 100th anniversary of women's participation in the Olympics--they competed in 1900 in Paris in croquet and tennis--AOC President John Coates said, "It is only fitting that this occasion be celebrated by the most significant part of the opening ceremony--the passage of the Olympic torch and the lighting of the caldron--being dedicated to the contribution of women Olympians."

After former Australian runner Herb Elliott carried the flame into the stadium, the final seven torchbearers were Australian women athletes.

Betty Cuthbert, a track and field sprinter who won four gold medals in two Olympics (1956, '64) and now uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, was assisted around the track by another sprinter, Raelene Boyle, who won three silver medals in two Olympics ('68, '72).

They handed off to Dawn Fraser, Samaranch's guest in the royal box Friday and the winner of four gold medals and four silver medals in three Olympics ('56, '60, '64). Considered the greatest woman swimmer of the 20th century, she also is Australia's most popular woman athlete, becoming even more beloved when Australian officials banned her for 10 years because she mischievously stole a flag from the Japanese emperor's palace during the Summer Games in Tokyo in 1964. She was elected in 1988 to the New South Wales Parliament.

She handed off to Shirley Strickland, a track and field sprinter and hurdler who won three gold medals, one silver medal and a bronze medal in three Olympics ('48, '52, '56). She handed off to swimmer Shane Gould, who was such a dominant swimmer in 1972 in Munich that U.S. swimmers tried to psych her out by wearing T-shirts that said, "All that Glitters is not Gould." True. Of her five medals, only three were gold.

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