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: The Day in Sydney

Move Quick, or You'll Miss All the Craziness

September 22, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — Today was a track field day for the newspapers here, so happy to have a sprinting prelim to cover before the sprinting prelims.

"PEREC'S 6000KM DASH" was the banner stripped across the front of the Sydney Morning Herald.

"FLYING HOME IN DISGRACE" topped the first page of The Australian.

"MADEMOISELLE La CHICKEN" the Daily Telegraph crowed.

Coverage of French runner Marie-Jose Perec's long-distance relay, from Sydney to Melbourne to Singapore to Paris, has been exhaustive, with reporters and editors working almost as hard as Perec's travel agent.

The fascination with Perec stems from the fascination with Australian 400-meter runner Cathy Freeman, AKA "Our Cathy." Perec won the 400-meter gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and holds a 7-2 record against Freeman, thus making her the ever-useful Foreign Foil for Our Cathy.

One problem: Facts.

Perec is 32 and a faded replica of the 200-400 double champion of Atlanta. She has spent more time pulling out of races than running them in 2000, competing only once at 400 meters this year, and has not raced head-to-head against Freeman since August 1996. A lot has happened since then--namely, 400-meter world championships for Freeman in 1997 and 1999. Perec? Four times she was scheduled to race against Freeman this year. Four times she scratched.

Perec had as much chance of beating Freeman in the 400 as Inger Miller had catching Marion Jones in the 100. It wasn't going to happen, which rates as good a reason as any as to why Perec and Miller aren't competing in those events here.

Miller also has an excuse: A tweaked hamstring she'd like to rest before diving into next week's 200 heats.

Perec has a track record. A self-styled diva who boasts that when she is in Paris "I am like Michael Jordan," Perec is well-known for erratic behavior--such as going through coaches like Gucci sandals (Wolfgang Meier is coach No. 7) and scuffling with a television interviewer when she discovered her sponsor's logo had not been displayed on the screen.

Strange behavior around Sydney's Olympic Park is nearing epidemic scale. At the International Aquatic Center, the action after the races has been more interesting than the stroke-by-stroke in the pool. Aussies riffing on the air guitar, Tom Dolan and his chlorine tsunami, Jenny Thompson glaring daggers through Inge de Bruijn, Thompson and Dara Torres sharing the same platform on the medal podium--tied for third in the 100 freestyle--for the most uncomfortable photo op of the 2000 Games.

Thompson and Torres don't care much for each other. This we can tell every time they brace for a post-race embrace, pretending to be friendly, barely refraining from applying the sleeper hold.

In stark contrast, American 200-meter backstroker rivals Lenny Krayzelburg and Aaron Peirsol seem to genuinely like one another, appear to be great mates. Their kinship seems almost brotherly. Krayzelburg comes off as the too-cool older sibling, slicked-back hair and perfect styling. Peirsol is the shaggy-dog little brother, gangly and a little goofy, still learning the ropes of this complicated international swimming business.

Peirsol, 17, has impressed U.S. reporters here with his retro tastes and knowledge of 1970s and 1980s pop culture.

Peirsol listens to The Who and Led Zeppelin and can recite dialogue verbatim from "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," a movie that made its theatrical release a year before Peirsol was born.

I don't know about you, but this impresses me more than anything Ian Thorpe has accomplished here. Thorpe, after all, was supposed to win all those gold medals. But Peirsol? It's so rare these days to find a youngster who truly appreciates the classics.

Sydney had its first Atlanta moment during the women's gymnastics all-around final, when gymnastics roadies mistakenly set up the vault apparatus two inches too low. This sent tiny gymnasts flying all over the place--American Elise Ray landing flat on her back, gold-medal favorite Svetlana Khorkina of Russia crashing on her knees and breaking into tears.

Eighteen pixies hurtled down the runway and leaped head-first into the great unknown before Australia's Allana Slater noticed the mistake.

Soon, officials were staring at the confounded contraption, taking measurements and finally raising the device to regulation height.

I'm not sure what is more troubling about this episode. The fact that officials allowed the most important gymnastics competition in the world to commence without first going over the ground rules, or the fact that 18 gymnasts vaulted over the thing before one of them noticed something was wrong.

Oh, and this just in: Heiko Hell of Germany has qualified for the men's 1,500-meter freestyle swimming final, thus giving rise to a weighty question perplexing all of Sydney right now:

Will the gold medal go to Hell?

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