It Sprawls across a butte 10 miles west of Sydney, a $433 million hosanna to the Summer Games of 2000. Its arches rise 190 feet from the floor of Sydney Olympic Park, a cluster of 14 sports venues connected by pristine brick walkways. Here will be the soul of the Games. Hills have been built and made grassy, endangered frogs have been saved. The stadium's official name is Stadium Australia, but everyone calls it the Olympic Stadium.
On Jan. 26 construction workers who had been on the site for more than two years were invited to bring their families into the stadium for an open house to celebrate its pending completion. They were given time to admire the 110,000 shimmering blue seats, which make this the largest Olympic stadium in history. They saw two huge television screens, one at each end, and a state-of-the-art running track surrounding a lush grass infield. It was a day of immense pride for anyone associated with Sydney's Olympic preparation.
There was another reason to celebrate. Just two days earlier, 10,300 miles away at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, an apparent crisis had been averted. In the wake of an admission by Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president John Coates that he had pledged a total of $70,000 in sports aid to IOC members from Kenya and Uganda on the eve of the September 1993 balloting that—by two votes—awarded the Games to Sydney, Kevan Gosper, the only Aussie on the IOC executive board, spent all night lobbying for what he felt was the Sydney Games' survival. First he secured assurances from Coates and New South Wales Minister for the Olympics Michael Knight that the money hadn't been simply a bribe for votes but, they said, had been placed in existing funds for youth sports in Kenya and Uganda. Then Gosper went to IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and pleaded Sydney's case. "I believed I had to act quickly to restore confidence in the
bid," says Gosper. "Samaranch wasn't happy. In a climate as uncertain as this, after Salt Lake City, I believed we could have lost the Games."
On Jan. 24 Samaranch declared that the 2000 Olympics wouldn't be moved, either because Gosper's explanation had been persuasive or because transplanting an entire Games almost 20 months before the torch-lighting would be logistical madness. In the days that followed, many Australians lustily dismissed the notion that the Olympics might have been taken away—or still might be, if more improprieties were to come to light. It was as if, by force of its collective stubbornness, the nation could laugh away the threat. "There was never any panic here," said Frank Sartor, the lord mayor of Sydney, as he stood last week on the steps of the city's Opera House, a landmark that will be burned into the world's retinas in 2000. "Sydneysiders are a pretty robust people, and it takes a lot to worry us.... In this case, there was corruption by IOC members, and no doubt by other bidding cities. Sydney's bid was one of the cleanest. We have no problem. The IOC has a problem."
Those sentiments were echoed by 1960 Olympic 1,500-meter champion Herb Elliott, an AOC director. "John Coates would have been stupid not to put $70,000 more in two existing funds if it made the difference in getting the Games," said Elliott. "Our Games are like a duck in the water: The feathers get a little ruffled, but underneath, the feet are paddling along. Gosper is the one who got himself in a panic."
Gosper disputed that. "It's easy for people in their armchairs and offices back in Australia to say that the Games were never in danger," he said. "It was a much more realistic threat from where I was."
In fact, for many Australians involved with the Games the scandal and its possible consequences helped underscore how much they had already invested in the Olympics. As the CEO of the consortium that built Stadium Australia, Alan Patching had spent hundreds of days at the site. "You get frustrations on a big job like this," said Patching last week as he walked along the running track. "Whenever I got frustrated, I would go up into the seating area and think about some athlete who's trained his whole life to run down the bloody track for 10 seconds. I tell you, it was magical just to imagine it, and I've never had another project that made me feel that way."
A native of tiny Thursday Island ("Four people and a dog," he said), Patching, 49, lived in Canberra for 35 years before moving to Sydney in 1996 to handle the stadium project. He didn't think the IOC scandal would affect him, but here on the track, under a summer sun, the prospect of having built just another pitch for Aussie Rules football hit a nerve. "You put in all this effort for something, sure it would be disappointing if they moved the Games," he said.
At least he would have a stadium to show for his work. Without the Olympics, David Hansen would have nothing. Hansen, 39, is competition manager for the triathlon, which in the 2000 Games will be an event for the first time. In Hansen's office is a picture of the start of a 1998 World Cup triathlon showing dozens of swimmers diving into Sydney Harbor, with the Opera House as a backdrop. "Most spectacular venue at the Games," he says.
Hansen, a longtime triathlon organizer from Melbourne, is one of more than 750 workers—the number will grow to some 2,000 next year—employed by the Sydney organizing committee. "It would have been absolutely devastating to so many people if they had moved the Games," Hansen says. Now he can continue planning the birth of an Olympic sport.