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Aussie Triathlon Craze: It's Something in Water

September 16, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — The first thing you need to know about the triathlon is that it's not the triathlon.

Just as there's no there in Oakland, there is no the in the triathlon.

It's just triathlon. Just like Staples Center and English soccer teams like Blackburn Rovers and American rock bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Talking Heads--but not The The.

It sounds a bit self-important, sure, but triathlon is a rookie on the Olympic sports menu and therefore is eager to impress. It also sounds like the name of an obscure island nation from the South Pacific that might have walked in the Opening Ceremony wearing leis and traditional native aquamarine robes.

And now presenting . . . Brigitte McMahon, Queen of Triathlon.

The second thing you need to know about triathlon is that 48 women swam, rode and ran it today in and around Sydney Harbor and no one was devoured by a shark.

To many at the Games here, this qualified as major news. Rumors of sharks in the water and triathletes in trouble had been floating around Sydney Harbor, like chum, for months.

Sharks are big in Sydney. The locals love to eat them. They chop off the fins and plop them into bowls of soup. They carve out finger-sized flakes of shark flesh--the locals call them "flakes"--and deep-fry them and serve them as fish and chips.

Sharks aren't dumb. They have heard the same reports, and they are starting to get annoyed. For that reason, SOCOG officials have taken measures, well-publicized measures, such as double-checking the strength of the harbor's shark nets and equipping scuba divers with special "protective ocean devices" that emit electrical currents that are supposed to repel sharks. At least that's the theory.

SOCOG also has released stats indicating that shark attacks have virtually been eliminated from Sydney Harbor. Reassuring, to a point. Maybe the Sydney shark population simply tired of the native cuisine and was merely waiting for the Olympics to come to town, for the chance to finally order in some Italian or Greek.

For weeks, SOCOG has taken great pains to downplay the shark factor, but you never can be really sure. At a bookshop Friday, I spotted a couple of magazines on the same shelf and have to believe the placement was something more than coincidental.

To the right was a copy of Triathlon Sports, "Australia's First Triathlon Magazine . . . Since 1984."

Alongside it was a copy of Australian Scuba Diver featuring a sneering great white on the cover. In bold black and blood red type, the headline read: "Sharks: What Makes Them Tick?"

You know what makes sharks tick?

Triathletes swimming in Sydney Harbor.

Of course, there had been an opposing school of thought that contended that the Aussies were trumping up the shark business as a prerace psychological ploy to intimidate foreign competitors. As in: What they don't know won't hurt them, but what they think they know could be enough to scare them off the medals stand.

It could be written off as a reach, but did you catch the Opening Ceremony? All those giant dagger-teethed barracuda and poisonous jellyfish and spiky unicorn fish floating around Olympic Stadium as part of a "tribute" to native Australian sea life? Right before all the athletes from 198 other nations marched into the building?

Subliminal message: Welcome to Australia. Don't go in the water.

And then there's the whole thing with Ian Thorpe. The Dangerous Thorpedo. The Invincible Ozzie Swimming Machine. A world record waiting to happen every time he pulls on his swim cap. Don't even think about dipping into the pool next to him.

Well, Thorpe came to the Sydney International Aquatic Center this morning, he swam his first Olympic prelim, he set his first Olympic record--this one in the 400-meter freestyle. He was merely swimming to reach the evening final, just warming up. The rest of the world has no chance, of course, but for the record, let it be noted that Americans Chad Carvin and Klete Keller also qualified for the final.

Keller, aka the Wet Space Cadet, could be the ideal guinea pig for the Thorpedo chase. Keller once got lost and locked inside a zoo in Australia and had to be rescued by key-toting officials. Another time, in an open-water race, he nearly knocked himself out swimming headfirst into a buoy.

In other words, at times, it helps to be oblivious.

Switzerland's women's triathlon team can vouch for that. Swimming against great odds--the mighty Aussies were expecting to sweep, scuba divers were sweeping the harbor in case of sharks--the Swiss took two of the top three medals. Brigitte McMahon upset Australian favorite Michellie Jones for the gold medal, outsprinting her to the finish, and teammate Magali Messmer outlegged everyone else for third.

As it turns out, the sharks were never a problem. But next time, SOCOG, put up a warning marker.

Beware Of Swiss.

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