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Golfer Norman Running Torch Leg

September 14, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Aussies are a notoriously laid-back bunch, but even they draw the line somewhere.

Perhaps that’s why thousands will hold their breath as golfer Greg Norman runs one of the final legs of the torch relay on its way across Sydney.

After watching protesters try to make off with the torch or extinguish it several times in the past few weeks, the last thing they were going to stand for was Norman crossing the Harbor Bridge with the flame and _ as he’s done time and again down the stretch of important tournaments _ knock it into the water.

Hopefully, he will carry that hazard without incident. Three weeks from now, Australia would love to be able to say the same.

Welcome to the land Down Under, an island nation of 19 million still wrestling with the legacy of ``The Stain.″ That originated in 1788, when a ship from England disgorged 548 male and 188 female convicts _ yes, jails were overpopulated even then _ and gave birth to modern Australia.

Four merino sheep were imported from San Francisco five years later and the economy was off and running. Some 200 years later, there are two sheep for every man and woman; but there is a bustling nation, too, hungry for the validation that staging an Olympics brings.

In that sense, much of what goes on these next few weeks will seem familiar.

Already, a Czech weightlifter, a female Canadian hammer-thrower and more than two dozen Chinese have been dropped from their teams in advance of drug testing.

Despite promises that corruption and excess are things of the past, International Olympic Committee boss Juan Antonio Samaranch is still holed up in luxury digs downtown. The athletes should be so lucky. Their digs are located next to a prison. Worse still, the transportation hiccups that plagued Atlanta have resurfaced in Sydney.

Members of the U.S. boxing team waiting for a bus were left waiting at the curb instead. The U.S. women’s water polo team headed for a scrimmage at one university but was driven to another. Dozens of drivers quit Wednesday over too-full schedules and too-few meal breaks.

Yet, as the calendar of the century prepares to turn the page on the Summer Games, much of what seems familiar will actually be foreign.

Koala bears are not bears at all, but marsupials. Australians speak English but when they talk about gurglers, they mean toilets and not somebody with a weakness for Listerine. Old sports have been grafted onto the program, but with new twists _ divers going off the boards in synch, a 300-pound weightlifter who is a woman.

In Atlanta, every other street is named Peachtree; here, every other street is named George.

Here, too, the city will be a featured performer. The first full day of competition will be launched by female triathletes jumping off the steps of Sydney’s Opera House into the harbor. The architect who designed the spectacular building disowned it before the project was completed, but no matter. That singular structure spurred Sydneysiders to rediscover a harbor that has become the glistening jewel in this city of 4 million. It is only one reason why the inferiority complex fostered when the 1956 Olympics were staged in Melbourne has dissolved beneath a wave of confidence.

The whole world will be watching.

Sydney will not flinch.

Not that it will always be easy. Protesters who spent part of the week disrupting the Asia Pacific Economic Summit down the coast in Melbourne are even now making their way toward Sydney. Aborigines, Australia’s indigenous people, are en route as well, vowing they’ve massed enough activists to form a human chain at the airport and regroup inconveniently at dozens of venues throughout the games.

Unfortunately, some other natives are just as restless.

In a small mining town 1,000 miles to the north, a family escaped injury when a 5 1/2-foot kangaroo jumped through a glass door in their house.

``There was blood and broken glass everywhere,″ Constable Alistair Taylor reported from Jebiru in the Northern Territory.

It took Taylor and partner Tim Perry two hours with a rake and a curtain rod to subdue the kangaroo. Their best guess is that it was an isolated incident _ and not the beginning of a wave of marsupial terror.

___

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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