There is no doubt about it that Sydney if going off at the moment and the Olympics themselves are proving to be hugely popular with the punters, tourists and media alike.

We’ve been to six different events so far and have been enthralled. It all started back on Thursday night when the torch ran through Sydney. It was an amazing atmosphere with an estimated one million people descending onto the city streets.

We saw Steve Waugh carry the torch near Martin Place and then wandered down to Circular Quay and watched average swimmer and “Seven personality” Joanna Griggs take the torch past us. At least we think it was her, all we could see in the mass of people was the top of the flame.

The atmosphere in the city was sensational. We stood around watching it on the big screen and drinking Carlton Colds out of plastic bottles that were being sold for the rip-off price of $5.50 a throw. Shame on you SOCOG, shame on you CUB, shame on you Sportless and shame on you outside stall owner, which ever one of you is individually or jointly responsible for that 500 per cent mark up.

After that we decided to support the American multinationals that support the games so we picked up a Big Mac, large fries and large Coke at Circular Quay before heading to The Domain with about 120,000 other people for the open air concert.

The atmosphere was just fantastic although it jarred a little to have Olivia Newton-John introducing Jack Rich from AMP to spruik the life insurance and super giant through its sponsorship of the torch relay.

It was time to file a story for Crikey by the time Yothi Yindi came on at 9.30pm and the Kings Cross net café was virtually empty with most backpackers still down at the Domain or pissing on at bars all over town. The party atmosphere was something else.

The Opening Ceremony

After settling in to the Darling Point apartment kindly offered by a friend, we wandered into ABC radio for our regular spot talking business gossip with Sally Loane on Friday morning. As would be expected, this was dominated by Olympics chit-chat. After that I headed down to the Sydney Media Centre at Darling Harbour along with all the other unaccredited journos in town. It was very useful being able to use the computers and telephones, but tragically you could not send a big email via hotmail and I couldn’t tap into the publishing system to update Crikey. Telstra had apparently stuffed up here as it was working fine later in the day at a Kings Cross net cafe. SOCOG is certainly putting out its spin to all the journos with lots of fluffy press releases about the green games and updates on merchandising sales. Let’s hope not too many journos are lazy enough to swallow their lines unchallenged. It was useful being able to watch Michael Knight give a 40 minute press briefing from the media centre at Homebush which was dominated by concerns about the transport system.

At about 6pm I headed up to Belmore Park in Surry Hills to watch the Opening Ceremony on a big screen with some friends. The atmosphere was terrific and the performances went down very well with the crowd. John Howard definitely got the biggest boo. Unfortunately, Paula had scheduled her arrival at 9.20pm so I took a cab out to the airport and watched the conclusion of the opening ceremony sitting on the baggage carousal. At least the airport authorities had dotted the place with televisions so you were never far away from it.

Dodgy Greek cab drivers were out in force at the airport and we got piled into a cab with two other fare-payers who were all led to believe we would not be sharing. The other passengers were abusing him when he diverted off to Darling Point to drop up off first and Paula also gave him a much-deserved gobfull for misleading her. As he said, “You can always go back to the end of the queue love”. We got to bed at about 11.30pm in an attempt to be well rested for the first day which had out busiest schedule of events.

Day One Of Competition

This was always going to be the busiest day with Beach Volleyball, Boxing, Fencing and Judo all accepted in the ballot. May as well hit the ground running we thought.

Partying on at the beach volleyball

After a good night’s sleep, unlike most of Sydney’s Olympic partygoers, we were able to get to the beach volleyball by about 10am the next morning, only an hour late. If there’s one thing you do at the Olympics, get down and check this out. The music and blokes on the loud speaker turn Olympic sport into a real party atmosphere and the athleticism of the women players was something to behold. We saw some bronzed Italians flog the hapless Greeks – are they good at anything these days – and even the Aussies had a convincing win over a different Italian pair. The top-ranked pair of Septic Tanks looked very strong in flogging some Czechs (where do they have any beaches?) and the Germans came from behind to nail a couple of Chinese army officers who’ve been processed into world-class beach volleyballers. The organisers have got a great bloke on the microphone conducting entertaining pisstakes with the United Nations crowd. The Septics, an Italian called “Fabio”, a loovely Irish laaaas from County Cork and a couple of luvlies from Essex all had the piss taken out of them at the change of ends. Twas very amusing stuff. Just lastly, the stadium was pretty full in the punters area but it was a complete outrage that the corporate, media and Olympic family section – which comprised about 25 per cent of the seats – was almost totally empty.

Seeing Ali at the boxing

Having left wife-to-be Paula at the beach volleyball, Crikey rushed into Darling Harbour to meet Best Man Ed for a three hour bout of boxing starting at 1pm. We learnt an early lesson at the boxing; use your Sydney Media Centre pass – which Crikey has and is for all the unaccredited media – to sit in the accredited media area and tap into some people who know what they’re talking about. We sat in front of a super heavyweight trainer from a mid-size country and he showed us the ropes. He pointed out the Pakistani godfather of boxing who was sitting in the only armchair ringside in front of a big screen. Our man reckons he’s very dodgy and got plenty of mentions in Andrew Jennings’ latest book, “The Great Olympics Swindle”. This dodgy bloke was all over Mahommad Ali when he made an unexpected visit to check out the boxing which was pretty unspectacular first round action. The 75 per cent full crowd gave Ali a standing ovation when he arrived and left and there was a rush to the front for a closer look at the end of each bout. The music was pretty good but the venue really needed a commentator to take everyone through the bouts and explain a few tricks of the trade. Send in that Beach Volleyball bloke. While Ali got the biggest roar, the next biggest came whenever an Aussie judge was announced because unfortunately there were no Aussie fighters in our session. Unlike the beach volleyball, most of the crowd shouting was in foreign languages by team mates and trainers. And we weren’t about to give them any lip, even after a couple of $5 VBs. Some of them looked as mean as hell. Our heavyweight trainer mate also said that they knew the Azbekistan (sic) boxing official was a druglord and that Australia was perfectly right in rejecting him. It really is unbelievable that Samaranch wrote to Howard complaining about this gangster who is tolerated by “The Olympic Family” was refused entry.

Fabulous Fun At The Fencing

With the boxing done, Paula graciously opted out of the fencing so Ed and I headed down to a gold medal session in the epee, which again was at Darling Harbour. Again, we pulled off a coup by sitting in the media area and managing to get a complete rundown on everything from this terrific fellow who doubled as Australia’s assistant coach. A pugnacious Frenchman named Abry brought extraordinary histrionics to this ancient gladiatorial sport but thankfully got beaten for the gold by a more understated Russian who’d lost at the previous two Olympics despite being favourite. The Frog was cheered on by a typically arrogant French cheer squad but was lucky to beat a lanky peroxide blonde Swissy in the semis after the trigger happy ref penalised him two points for excessive body contact. The Aussie coach reckoned it was a right swindle and we agree. Bloody refs. Fencing was fabulous fun and we highly recommend you take a look but it is still in the dark ages to some extent with the competitors still wired up and wearing grills rather than clear see-through masks. We’re told this will be rectified in time for Athens in 2004. Just like at the boxing, it was extraordinary the number of television screens set aside for the media and officials at the fencing. There must have been almost 200 at both venues – is it any wonder the technology spend now soaks up 28 per cent of an Olympics operating budget?

The Thorpedo in the pub

No doubt everyone will be able to remember where they were the night that the Aussies ended the Septic stranglehold over the 4×1 freestyle relay. Crikey was in a sports bar at Darling Harbour called Oneworld and can only say that it totally went off. There’s nothing like combining alcohol with nationalism; it was deafening in there. An amazing moment and an enduring memory for sure.

Taxis, juggling tickets, debt and the Olympics

Our last gig of the night was Judo and I thought I’d wriggled out of it by giving one ticket to Paula and another to Crikey’s philosopher at large Alan Hajek. But as Ed and I travelled in a cab up to a party in Paddington, Alan rang to say the Australia-Nigeria soccer match was just too exciting and he couldn’t leave. With Paula stranded on her own at judo, the taxi was made to go to the Sydney Football Stadium, wait for Al to pass the Judo ticket through the fence and then head back to the Judo with Paula at Darling Harbour. With the 10 per cent Olympics surcharge – god knows how they got away with that – this came to $30 on its own, confirming yet again that the Olympics are a debt-inducing phenomenon for most people who get involved in it.

Jumping around at the Judo

The judo started at 8.30pm and I got there by 9.45pm just in time to see two gold medal bouts which both featured Japanese competitors. The place must have been 40 per cent full of Japanese supporters all of whom were chanting and waving their flags. How did they know to snap up all these tickets for the finals when the Japanese competitors could have been knocked out in one of several preliminary bouts during the day? The two bouts took about 10 seconds each because this particular type of judo is over as soon as one competitor is pinned to their back. I’ve never seen a press pack like it afterwards as about 40 photographers – mostly from Japan – fell over each other to get the happy snaps that would adorn the country’s papers the next day. The Japanese women who won the under 48kg category looked about 12 but we were reassured she was actually 26. The atmosphere was pretty good and the judo is worth a look, but it again lacked a good overarching commentary and we hadn’t managed to sneak into the media section to tap into some resident expert. I tried asking the Japanese women behind what they were chanting but she was most upset at missing the winning the pin as she explained “her name”. Pretty dumb question, eh.

Piking it on Saturday night

We were meant to go back to this Paddington party and meet up with Ed, Crikey’s philosopher at large and various others after the judo, but four events in one day and about six VBs had taken its toll. Besides, we had another early start at the men’s triathlon the next morning so we were sound asleep in our friend’s Darling Point apartment well before midnight. Keeping up the Olympics pace is going to be a big challenge and we decided to eschew the blinder nights of yesteryear to soak up as many events as possible. There’s also the small matter of a wedding to organise and a website to update.

Good fun at the Triathlon

The triathlon is a wonderful addition to the Olympic games and we had a great time on Sunday morning checking out the men’s event after all the excitement the previous morning in the women’s when Australia took silver. The tickets were free and a friend Anna had scored six to section J which was in the Domain. It was another glorious day so we picnicked during the swim leg waiting to see the athletes from close quarters during the six cycling and two running circuits they would do straight past us. The Aussie contender “Robbo” had a huge contingent of fans wearing “Go Robbo Go” and “”Let’s Go Robbo” tee-shirts but sadly he never looked in the contest after getting interfered with during the swim leg. We saw a stack involving about six cyclists and the poor old Zimbabwean Marebini got pulled off the track just near us when he was coming last and about to be lapped. It was a truly fabulous location for a triathlon and a very exciting race that we were able to keep track off on the walkman when ever the athletes were out of site. We were convinced the Frog had it sewn up with a 300 metre lead at the start of the run but he got mown down by the German who in turn got mown down by the Canadian who won the gold. There will doubtless be whispers about the endurance enhancing illegal drug EPO but we’ll never know because the IOC rejected the use of a pioneering test worked up by an Australian team earlier this year.

Lunch and then more Judo

After sprinting down to another section of the Domain to watch the finish of the race on the big screen, Paula and I left our party to meet some other friends for lunch and good bottle of Red at Bar Lucca in Phillip St. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Olympics is the moments you share excitedly with different friends talking about the events. Every man and his dog is in town and we’re all nattering away on our mobile phones working our meeting times and trading tickets. Having been unable to offload our second lot of judo tickets on this Sunday afternoon, Paula and I wandered down to Darling Harbour very sleepily and tried sitting in the media section only to be thrown out by the first half-alert volunteer we’d come across. It was another full house so we resumed out seats right near the back next to an entire section of chanting Koreans who were lead by about 5 scantily clad female cheer leaders. The crowd only just managed a bigger roar for the Aussies, such was the number and passion of the 200-strong Korean contingent who sat obediently with matching hats, tee-shirts and signs while fighters from other countries fought and then leapt into a frenzied throng for their compatriots.

Unlike Saturday night, this was a preliminary session and so we stayed for about 30 bouts until the two Australians had been eliminated. The guy next to us was a Judo fanatic and gave us a few clues. For instance, they break the groups up into two pools and play through till they have two winners. Then the eight people who lost to them on the way through go into a repercharge to battle it out for the other two semi-final spots. In other words, even if you lose in the first round, if the guy who beats you gets through to the semis, you get a second shot. It’s a system that gives someone with a tough draw a second chance. Not bad, eh.

Lots of beef at the weightlifting

I’d mistakenly told everyone that the $125 weightlifting tickets on Sunday night were for a women’s session and therefore had no-takers. The Olympics partner of last resort, Paula Piccinini, was therefore called up to play handbag after we’d caught up with the philosopher Al Hajek and Crikey’s sister on the grass in front of the big screen at Darling Harbour for a very pleasant 90 minutes watching the Boomers suffer a shock loss to the Canadians. It is an excellent set-up in the open spaces and well worth spending many an hour putting down a few coldies watching the Seven broadcast on the big screen. As it turned out, the weightlifting was great fun because it was the 63kg men’s category. The place was full of vociferous flag-waring Turks who’d come to see the favourite powerlift his way to gold. Problem was that the little fella got a bit overconfident and failed on all three occasions to lift his starting weight of 145kg in the snatch. The Turks were devastated and few more uniformed police suddenly turned up as the Croations and Greeks leapt into voice and flag-waving mode to back their two boys who took gold and silver respectively. It was a great atmosphere and we highly recommend you check out a session of weightlifting. The commentary is good, it is easy to follow and very climatic and tactical. The 39-yo Aussie contestant came about 7th out of 13 but was very happy with his performance in clean and jerking 165kg – just 5kg short of his PB of 170kg when he was a younger man.

Another early night on day two

Paula was keen to shut it down early again so we checked out the UPS laser and water show at 9.10pm at Darling Harbour and then stayed for the fireworks before taking a cab home. The total cab bill in four days is already nudging $200 so we really should stick with the trains and buses because they’re free if you’ve got an Olympic ticket to something that day.

In conclusion

It’s now 6pm on Monday afternoon and I’ve been in this Kings Cross net café for about 5 hours. Time to shut it down and get down to a friend’s place in Double Bay to watch the Thorpedo just after 7pm. Ed rang a short-time ago to offer a ticket for $225 to tonight’s swimming but Crikey’s well-known financial discipline saw this rejected. So far, we’ve offloaded about $1500 worth of the $8000 tickets we bought. It gives you the delusion that you’re not spending any money in Sydney just because you don’t have to visit the bank. Till next time, catch ya later.

Stephen Mayne