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Who Says Silver Is Bad?

September 20, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Madame Butterfly was on Wednesday. The performance, some distance from Sydney Opera House, went badly, with the diva shouldered aside by a young Yank. But applause was loud.

Aussies, whatever else, are pretty good sports.

Martin Place, which is scream central for the great ticketless masses, pulsed with 220-volt excitement as Susie O’Neill hunkered down for the 200-meter butterfly, her personal, private race for six years.

For the next 2 minutes, 5.88 seconds, thousands bellowed, shrieked or quietly prayed before the giant outdoor screen. But then it was Misty Hyman, from someplace called Phoenix, who was flipping out with joy.

After a brief stunned hush, a polite round of clapping grew louder and louder as Australians acknowledged that the beautiful, brainy and well-mannered young Arizona Olympian had earned her gold.

O’Neill was still their hero, and her record stood by seven one-hundredths of a second. Shame seemed to be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

``She done well just to get what she got,″ said Gladwyn Dunn, a tree surgeon, with an intricate Australian flag painted on his cheek. ``Whether they come in first, second or third, we’re all proud of them.″

``I just love her,″ said Fiona Waller, a knee surgeon, whose 10-year-old daughter, Sophie, wore the facial flag in the family. ``That was such a surprise for the American girl. It was sweet.″

Crowd noise drowned out the post-race interview with O’Neill, but no one missed those gleaming, white teeth visible because of that familiar wide smile.

``I don’t know what she said but I’m sure it was something self-deprecating and pleasant,″ Waller said.

Young Sophie agreed: ``Susie has a record that hasn’t been beat in six years. She is my hero.″

The ol’ win-or-lose-it’s-how-you-play-the-game is hardly a new theme, but down here most people seem to believe it. It feels great to win, particularly against braggart adversaries. But close also counts.

This was explained by a man in a suit who carefully placed a newspaper on the sidewalk to plunk down next to a group in jeans who had just finished off a tub of linguini with tomato and basil sauce.

``She epitomizes everything we like to think of as Australian qualities,″ said Jon Scriver, an Arthur Andersen consultant. ``She is just a lovely person. Modest by nature, talented.″

Judy Shanahan, a retired school cleaner who had driven down from the central coast to get into the Olympic spirit, said the same thing. ``She’s an ideal. So ... Australian.″

This being the Olympics, Madame Butterfly’s moment did not last long. There were others to console.

Aussie Michael Klim was fourth in the men’s 100 freestyle, well behind the Dutch phenomenon Pieter van den Hoogenband, who only the night before had startled the nation by skunking their idol, Ian Thorpe.

There was that cyclist who got caught in the final seconds of a heat by her Ukraine opponent. And so on. Australia has had better nights on the giant screen at Martin Place. But no matter.

``I just love the Olympics,″ said Alex, Scriver’s 7-year-old son, who emerged undaunted after watching someone else’s flags on the podium. He planned a career as a swimmer, but that might change as events progress.

``It’s just fantastic to get out here,″ Alex’s aunt, Claire Stocks, added.

A glance across the sea of faces, blurred by waving blue and red flags, suggested that she spoke for the crowd. Australia is likely to slip as track and field fills the screen. But Martin Place will party on.

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