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They Gave It the Old Aussie Tri

Even when one of their own loses at the finish in first women's triathlon, hosts have right Olympic spirit.

September 16, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; Oi, Oi, Oi."

The chant had flitted among the gleaming skyscrapers and graceful trees here for two days by the time one of their daughters had sprinted from shadows toward the water.

It was triathlete Michellie Jones, chasing Switzerland's Brigitte McMahon down historic Macquarie Street today, one sweat-darkened shoe length behind, 300 yards to the harbor and history.

Her people, sitting in windows and hanging from light posts and crowding behind barriers, rose up and screamed.

"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie . . . "

On his toes and pressed into a back, a visitor found himself screaming with them.

A victory would give Australia a gold medal in the woman's triathlon, the first event of the 2000 Olympic Games and the inaugural Olympic running of one of their favorite sports.

A victory would add the final flicker to a torch that was lit Friday night, completing a welcome as sensitive and beautiful as an Aussie night sky.

The Sydneysiders bloody fair dinkum deserved this, darn it.

"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie . . . "

Fueled by the thunder, Jones appeared to pull momentarily even with McMahon as they passed the final crowd of fans before reaching the Opera House parking lot.

But then, as the noise disappeared, so did the strength.

By the time the runners appeared again from behind a barrier, much to the dismay of thousands of craning necks, McMahon had sprinted into the lead for good.

Moments later, a loudspeaker on a street light announced that McMahon had edged Jones by, it turns out, only two seconds.

There was silence. Heads fell. A blue and red Australian flag fluttered from a shrugged shoulder.

Then the strangest thing happened. From down the street, another cheer arose.

More runners. Another Swiss. An American. Another Aussie. A Frenchwoman.

The noise spread from the old convicts' barracks past the old hospital, through the rows of palms and figs, and soon the Aussies were back at the barriers encouraging every last competitor.

At least on the first day, at least in this first event, the Australians seemed to be sending a message that this is what it's about.

"We don't really think it's about winning, it's more about giving it a go," computer specialist Edilia Ford said.

She paused, smiling at the visitor.

"Do you know what 'giving it a go' means?"

He does now.

In the last two days, the Australians have opened their arms to the world by doing just that.

It began in Friday night's opening ceremony, which devoted much time to honoring the original Australians--the Aboriginals--in the face of a government that refuses to apologize for stealing their children.

A country known for "tough guys" such as Paul Hogan and Jacko then celebrated its diversity with Friday's torch lighting finale. It was conducted by a group of current and former Australian Olympians consisting entirely of women and led by Aboriginal track star Cathy Freeman.

The Friday ceremony ended, rather wonderfully, without one reference to the Australian stereotypes of kangaroos or koalas.

The program was unofficially completed this morning with a salute to the common man. The triathlon here has long been considered their sport, a regular sport, much like playground basketball or company softball in the United States.

"We can all run, we can all bike, and we can all swim . . . although not always so fast or far," said smiling account Peter Robertson, who, like thousands of others, lined the streets for free with his entire family. "This race is like our opening ceremonies, only $1,500 cheaper."

And at least as picturesque, as the competitors began the race diving into dark green Sydney Harbor waters against a backdrop of Opera House, Harbor Bridge, and distant hills.

Think Seattle. Add San Francisco. Then drop in the sun.

The visitor remarked that it was a particularly brilliant day.

"We just hoped you wiped your feet before you came in," Brian Rheinberger said.

There was not only the typical understated Aussie humor here, there was their typical exaggerated bravery.

While the competitors were splashing through their 1.5-kilometer swim through chilly waters, several divers paddled around them on surfboards.

Yep. Shark bodyguards.

"But there's really no sharks down this way," said Kevin Bryne, a young triathlete watching the race. "A bigger danger is jellyfish. They wrap themselves around you and you get a bit of a sting."

A bit?

"It only hurts for three or four days," he said.

Three or four days?

The competitors seemed unaffected by water creatures, and spent most of the race in the pleasant company of neighbors.

Judging from this first crowd, the official Australian hat is a young child balanced on shoulders.

The official Australian dance is the bouncing of that delighted hat to any tune that comes over the loudspeaker.

The official Australian cheer, apparently, goes out to everybody.

"I think, culturally, given our convict background, a lot of us came from a place of a struggle," Ford said. "People around here respect that. We cheer for the underdog."

One such person was triathlete Joanna Zieger of the U.S.

"It was a totally awesome experience, I don't feel a tiny bit frustrated," she said this afternoon.

She finished in fourth place. It only sounded like first place. Amid the Aussie's great opening act, everything does.




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Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address.

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