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Down Wonders

Analysis: In a celebration of all things Australian, Freeman's flame lighting climaxes a show that knocked some socks off but was only a little bit shorter than most America's Cup competitions.


SYDNEY, Australia — It's early still, but by the looks of things, you'd have to favor the Aussies in the kangaroo toss.

They're deep in synchronized lawn mowing too, and there are some good young prospects in the individual hovercraft medley.

The coxless 4-by-100 power-sanding team could use some work, though.

They come from a land Down Under, these quirky people with these quirky pastimes, always indulging in some odd athletic activity or inventing new ones, and who can keep up with all of them?

Before Friday's Olympic opening ceremony, who knew the Aussies were aces in aerial trapeze gymnastics? Or had that kind of balance in the 1,500-meter flaming stilt walk?

That was the theme of the show--a celebration of Australian sport. Either that or a celebration of Australian history. Or a celebration of Australian eccentricity. It had to be one of those, way back when, but the thing lasted so long, it's hard to remember.

It took 230 years for Sydney to go from Captain Cook's dropping the anchor in Botany Bay to SOCOG's bringing the Olympic flame to Homebush Bay--and nearly as long to wrap up the opening ceremony. Sandwiched between the choreographed human formation of the Olympic rings and the opening bleat by the Sydney 2000 marching band was a rousing tap-dance-in-steel-toed-boots number that carried the working title "Eternity," not an ounce of irony intended.

According to the hand-held stopwatch, the festivities lasted 4 hours 17 minutes, running more than an hour late. A case of bad planning? Atlanta-like wide-scale disorganization?

No, a tribute to NBC and its all-tape-delayed Olympics 2000 coverage.

It has been said that the opening ceremony is the window to the soul of the Olympic host country, providing worldwide television viewers an honest view of what's really inside.

If that's the case, Friday's show proved that Australia, going 44 years between opening ceremonies, clearly had too much time on its hands.

The game plan: If it looks Australian or sounds Australian or faintly resembles anything Australian, let's throw it in there. The whole kit and caboodle and bubble and squeak. Everything must go.

So before the first Albanian and Algerian athletes entered Olympic Stadium, we had seen or heard "Waltzing Matilda," a tribute to the 18th-century Australian stock horse, "The Man From Snowy River," two versions of the Australian national anthem, a tribute to Australian sea creatures, indigenous Australian music and dance, a re-creation of an Australian bushfire, a tribute to Australian flora and fauna, a re-creation of Captain Cook's first landing in Australia, a tribute to the 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (but no re-creation of his 1880 hanging for the murder of a policeman), a tribute to Australian multiculturalism, a performance by the Australian tap-dancing troupe Tap Dogs, a tribute to Australian suburban life highlighted by choreographed lawn mower men (!) in shorts and tacky Hawaiian shirts, and an exhibition of Australian hovercraft technology--personal aerial scooters called "airboards" that looked like something out of "The Jetsons," and are probably ripping good fun.

Every tool in the box was pulled out and put on display, even the great Aussie power sander, in what may or may not have been a tribute to Australian school-boy metal shop.

It was quite a sight: dozens of Aussie tap-dancers tap-dancing so furiously on a steel scaffold that sparks appeared to be flying from their steel-toed boots, but were in fact created by safety-goggled extras pressing whirring power sanders to the metal platform.

Go you green and gold and Black and Decker!

Then began the parade of athletes, kicking off customarily with the very first Olympians, the Greeks, and culminating, 198 nations later, with the hosts. It's a mutual admiration society, the Australian athletes and their public, and they showed their affection for one another as only Australians are apt.

In the stands, the fans pulled green-and-gold socks on their hands, like mittens, and began to applaud for their heroes. Nagano had its clapskates, Sydney has its clapsocks.

In return, the athletes reached into their pouches and pulled out tiny toy kangaroos--pre-fab plastic joeys--and began chucking them into the seats. Not marsupial-type pouches--nothing quite so authentic as that--but bulging vinyl shoulder bags filled to the brim with souvenir kangaroo dolls to be used, of course, for the ceremonial kangaroo toss.

Within seconds, it was raining yellow kangaroos. Delighted fans were attempting, with not much success, to catch them on the fly. "Not a right fielder in the bunch," commented one American reporter, unworried about the upcoming baseball competition.

Next time, Aussies, take off the socks.

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