And They're Off!

Somewhere amid the endless opening procession of fruit-colored blazers, beaming under their hats, were the faces we will get to know so well over the coming days and weeks: the hard-bodied sprinter squeezing out the last few hundredths of a second standing between the human race and the practical limits of two-legged propulsion; the ponytailed gamine who can hurl herself spinning and tumbling into the air and land with the authority of a jackknife stuck in a pine plank; the lithe swimmer with the easy smile and the golden California sun in her hair. Soon the pedestrian hordes of officials and also-rans will fall away and they will stand revealed to us, the fruit of our youth, bedecked with all the swooshes and milk mustaches their grateful nations can bestow. Australian swimming phenom Ian Thorpe solidified his hold on his countrymen with two gold medals and two world records in the first full day of competition. America settled for a silver medal in the men's 4 x 100 relays, but won with its quartet of golden-agers (averaging more than 27 years) in the women's version, while an unexpected victory in the 10-meter air-rifle competition lifted American Nancy Johnson from utter obscurity to a fleeting moment of relative obscurity.

It was a soul-stirring moment--actually, around four hours--when teams from 199 countries sauntered into Sydney's Olympic Stadium, reminding the world that globalization is fine for investment bankers but stops at the edge of the beach-volleyball court. The winds of politics brought the electrifying symbolic unification of the two Koreas under one flag, if only for the length of the opening ceremonies. But at every Olympics there are more flags to march under; even a country so deficient in patriotic bombast as to call itself Micronesia fielded a team this year for the first time, albeit with just seven athletes (including two who were listed as water-polo players, which didn't give them much of a shot, since a team numbers 13). Among nations of any size, only Afghanistan, on suspension by the International Olympic Committee for failure to allow any women to compete, was unrepresented.

And it is, truly, Australia's moment in the sun--sun that was provided, in part, by the expedient of starting daylight saving time two months early, during what is still winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The only other time Australia hosted the Olympics was in 1956, when it was inconceivably more remote from Europe and the United States, and before host nations had learned to regard the Games as a three-week-long worldwide advertisement for tourism. It was also before white Australians gave much thought to the Aborigines, who got the vote only in 1967. This year's opening ceremonies were largely given over to a celebration of Australia's ethnic diversity and Aboriginal culture in particular (along with power mowers, exotic marine life and a particularly baffling tribute to corrugated sheet metal, the material that was to the Outback as marble was to Venice). Representing both Aborigines and women, the great Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman ignited the Olympic cauldron from flames lit four months ago in Athens, a symbolic gesture of reconciliation that organizers no doubt hoped would help quell some of the threatened demonstrations by agitators for native rights.

Eager to initiate visitors into Australian culture, Sydney suspended pub-closing hours for the duration of the Games. Foreigners were duly wowed by both the quantity and the quality of Australian alcohol consumption, which was continuous, but remarkably good-natured and uncontentious. Indeed, visitors praised the whole spirit of the country, which they found refreshingly different from the "y'all come back and buy some more souvenir plates" spirit of the 1996 Atlanta Games. They were less impressed by the transportation system, which relied on out-of-town bus drivers who were reduced to asking their passengers for directions--not a very useful technique with a bus full of Chinese journalists. Even IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch was left standing outside his hotel at one point, looking pointedly at his watch--and the empty road in front of him.

Samaranch flew back to Spain after the opening ceremonies to be with his gravely ill wife, Maria Teresa Salisachs, who died over the weekend. He will return to Sydney, but this will be the last Olympics for Samaranch, who is 80 and will retire next year. For better or worse the modern shape of the Olympic movement will be his legacy: more and bigger sponsors, faster and stronger athletes, and a growing suspicion that it all rests on a seamy foundation of illegal drug use. As Brazil's swimming coach Michael Lohberg told a Brazilian newspaper, only a "total idiot" would allow himself to be caught. "The athlete is either clean, or he is contending for gold," he added. "The two are not compatible." Nevertheless, on Sunday, the entire Romanian weight-lifting team was banned from the Games, the result of three positive drug tests.

The first few days of swimming went according to form, which meant Australia's 17-year-old phenom Ian Thorpe triumphed easily in the 400-meter freestyle. Afterward the towering youngster raced back to the lockers to change into a dry bodysuit and lined up with minutes to spare at poolside for the 4 x 100 relay. "I had about four people trying to pull [the suit] over me," he said, and he was still tugging it into place as his teammate Michael Klim swam the first leg in record-breaking time. In a ferocious anchor leg Thorpe overtook Gary Hall to win by a margin of .19 second, marking the first time the Americans had lost the event. The American women, though, triumphed in their 4 x 100, giving Jenny Thompson her sixth gold medal in her third Games and making Dara Torres, 33, the oldest woman swimmer ever to win an Olympic gold.

That same day, 48 women lined up for the first Olympic triathlon in history, which began with a 1,500-meter swim through the chilly waters of Sydney Harbor. American Sheila Taormina emerged from the water first, but lost her lead on the biking leg. Australia's Michellie Jones, widely regarded as the best woman's triathlete in the world, was edged out in the final 10K run by a Swiss newcomer, Brigitte McMahon. The next day Canadian Simon Whitfield won the first men's Olympic triathlon. By then, the world's quadrennial spring break was in full swing, building toward the moment when one little girl would go spinning into space and come back to earth (with that magical dissipation of kinetic energy gymnasts call "sticking") more famous than anyone who ever lived in the years before there were Olympics--and sponsors.