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Australians Cheer As Torch Moves

September 15, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ At the opera house, they packed the water’s edge and cheered. They watched from buildings, from a docked ocean liner, even from atop the steel skeleton of the fabled Harbor Bridge. They oohed and ahhed as the Olympic flame went by.

Ready to greet the world, Sydneysiders paused at the edge of the Olympics on Thursday night to see their downtown awash in fireworks, an Olympic-rings light show and even a big round moon, delivered against a cloudless sky. The collective exhortation: Let the games begin.

``This shows people what we’re about _ whatever that may be,″ said a smiling Gloria Garton, pressed up against a barricade with her husband Thursday night to see blind Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli pass the Olympic torch to Australian pop star Olivia Newton-John.

Australian sprinter Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, women’s captain of her nation’s Olympic team, brought the torch into the Sydney Opera House grounds at dusk, passing it to Bocelli.

He held it aloft before thousands of cheering people crowded into Bennelong Point, then handed it to a grinning Newton-John. She carried it off into the night on the last leg of its journey toward Olympic Park and Friday’s opening ceremony. Then Bocelli sang Verdi’s ``Di quella pira.″

With the crowd roaring, the Olympic rings that hang from the landmark bridge illuminated as the last sunlight faded, and fireworks shot from the bridge’s anchorage. Five helicopters and the Goodyear Blimp _ rechristened the ``G’Day Blimp″ for the games _ hovered overhead.

``It’s all happening,″ enthused Lawrence Nethery of Sydney. ``The rings look fantastic, but the moon looks even better. One of the best things I’ve ever been to.″

``A lovely day on the harbor,″ said spectator Lorraine Askew.

Half of the seats outside the opera house went to the general public; the other half went to those attending the Thursday opera program. It created an odd juxtaposition: On one side, rowdy youths held Australian flags aloft and chanted ``Aussie! Aussie!″ while opera-goers in formal garb applauded sedately on the other.

In the crowd on the quay, chants and shouts erupted after a clarinet player in the crowd performed a slow, haunting rendition of ``Waltzing Matilda,″ the unofficial national anthem.

Afterward, downtown erupted into an exuberant festival of happy anticipation. Exuberant fans popped champagne, guzzled beer and sipped wine in the streets in a manner both jubilant and _ as befits the Aussie attitude, it seems _ mellow.

Friday’s arrival ratcheted the excitement level up several notches.

Thousands of early risers thronged the Harbor Bridge, many chanting golfer Greg Norman’s name as he carried the torch across. Norman said he was overwhelmed by the crowd’s size and fervor.

By 3 p.m., four hours before the opening ceremony, Olympic Park was jammed with spectators streaming in from downtown. The sunny skies of recent days had been replaced by thick clouds, though there was no sign of rain.

Organizers kept a tight lid on the opening ceremony’s details, as has become customary. But artistic director David Atkins said it would be appropriate to both Australia and the world.

``What we’ve tried to do is reflect our culture,″ Atkins said.

``It will be a great showcase ... a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show the world about Australia,″ said Michael Knight, Australia’s Olympics minister.

Bocelli was a surprise guest in the torch ceremony Thursday night. The tenor was driven in a golf cart to the podium, where Gainsford-Taylor, who will be competing in the Sydney Games, brought him the torch. Newton-John, known best in America for her role in ``Grease″ and her hit song ``Physical,″ then ran in. The three stood triumphantly, with the torch blazing.

The Olympic torch has been making its way across the world’s only island continent since June, carried by a variety of Australians from Aborigines to athletes to a 109-year-old man. Along the way, it has survived a theft attempt and a teen-ager’s novel if ill-conceived attempt to douse it with a fire extinguisher.

Australians who turned out to see the harbor spectacle Thursday night said such events can bring people together and help present their country’s best face to the world.

``Anything important always happens right here at the opera house,″ Garton said. ``Nighttime, it’s like fairyland down here.″

Added her husband, Allan: ``It helps people to forget all the world’s troubles.″

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