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Sunday, October 1
Samaranch calls these Olympics 'best ever'

SYDNEY, Australia -- From the fields of play to Sydney's spectacular harbor, Australia and the world's athletes cut loose Sunday, bidding goodbye to two weeks of sporting triumphs and doping scandals -- a memorable Summer Olympics proud to claim the coveted title of "best games ever."

Flags from various nations add color to the closing ceremonies.
Fireworks exploded across the Sydney sky, heralding an 8.5-mile "fuse" designed to carry the Olympic torch's symbolic light from the main stadium along barges in Homebush Bay to a jam-packed downtown, where the majestic Harbor Bridge for an explosion of light.

"Seven years ago, I said, `And the winner is Sydney,"' said Juan Antonio Samaranch, the retiring president of the International Olympic Committee. "Well, what can I say now? Maybe, with my Spanish accent, `Aussie, Aussie, Aussie."'

The crowd of 100,000 thundered the response now known across the world: "Oi! Oi! Oi!"

Organizers wanted a relaxed closing show that let competitors and spectators send the games off in style. And a raucous, untethered, schticky party they got.

It veered oddly among comedy (slapstick routines), ancient ritualism (Greek priestesses in flowing dresses) and the simply hallucinogenic (a giant upended fish skeleton and shrimp on bicycles) -- testament to what choreography, technology and an arenaful of enthusiastic spectators can do.

The festivities began minutes after Elias Rodriguez of Micronesia ran into Olympic Stadium, ending the men's marathon and freeing the arena for athletes to swarm in. And if anyone worried these would be dubbed the "Drug Games," it didn't show Sunday night: The Olympic flame went dark, but the partying went on.

Olympics-giddy fans and volunteers packed a stadium crackling with energy. They did the wave, flashed flashlights by the thousands into a crystal-clear night and chanted that spirited "Aussie" chant.

And with cameras and carefree smiles, 10,000 athletes flooded the biggest Olympic arena of all. Swimming gold medalist Ian Thorpe, in a red coat, carried the Australian flag, waving it to the music. It was a fun, festive end to the games. And, boy, was it weird.

Thirteen-year-old Nikki Webster, who journeyed through 50,000 years of Australian history in the opening ceremony, returned to star in the more festive wrapup, which grew progressively more surreal. If Salvador Dali ever held a homecoming parade, it might have looked like this.

A lawnmower crashed through a stage and hundreds of band members -- on purpose -- in a mass chase torn from a Buster Keaton movie. There emerged outsized plastic dancers, robots on stilts and an angry inflatable kangaroo pushed by trolls in halos.

Athletes batted around a behemoth eyeball. And nobody seemed to mind. "Let's party," the scoreboard pulsed.

The ceremony was broadcast live on giant screens across Sydney and Australia. It featured a flyover by two Royal Air Force F-111s, fireworks artists from five continents, 7,000 performers and a parade of "Australian icons" from Greg Norman and Elle MacPherson to country singer Slim Dusty and aboriginal rocker Yothu Yindi. Also included: Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan, a good-natured symbol of the struggle over the nation's changing image.

Australia expended great effort showing itself off during these Olympics to help visitors and a TV audience of billions understand that the world's southernmost continent is more than kangaroos and boomerangs. But, mindful of the tourism dollar, it also recognizes that pop-culture images still sell -- and sell well.

Thus the closing featured the Men at Work song "Land Down Under." It featured the rubber thong, "Australia's beach footwear of choice." It featured a tune any Olympic visitor cannot fail to recognize -- the unofficial national anthem, "Waltzing Matilda."

The verdict was certain and confident: Australia has successfully introduced itself to the world.

"All Australians are entitled to feel proud of our athletes, our country and ourselves, and what our nation has achieved during this period," Olympics minister Michael Knight said.

As with any Olympics, the 2000 Summer Games offered a dizzying selection of memorable moments to take home -- and some that everyone wishes they could forget.

From the pool to the track, the baseball field to the wrestling ring, athletes made the marks of a lifetime.

It was the Olympics of the Thorpedo. Of Cathy Freeman, the aboriginal sprinter who shouldered a nation's racial burden. Of Eric Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who barely finished and captured the imagination of an underdog-friendly world.

It was an Olympics of whooshes -- Thorpe and Susie O'Neill and Jenny Thompson and Inge de Bruijn whooshing through the water. Marion Jones and Maurice Greene whooshing along the track. Stacy Dragila and Tatiana Grigorieva whooshing over the bar and claiming spots in pole-vaulting history.

It was an Olympics of surprises and unexpected twists: the U.S. softball team rallying for gold after a series of stunning losses; American wrestler Rulon Gardner defeating the most formidable foe of all, Russian Alexander Karelin; the U.S. men's basketball team nearly falling to Lithuania; Lance Armstrong losing the 33-mile time trial to his close friend Viacheslav Ekimov of Russia.

It was an Olympics of firsts, especially for women. Trampoline and taekwondo and synchronized diving made their debuts, as did women's pole vault, women's water polo and women's weightlifting.

And it was the Olympics of doping and cheating, showcased as never before thanks to more stringent IOC testing policies and punishments. Positive tests claimed five medals, including a gold captured by Andreea Raducan, the little Romanian girl whose doctor prescribed cold medicine that turned out to be banned.

During the Olympics themselves, athletes underwent about 3,600 tests -- more than in any previous games. Less than 0.5 percent tested positive; officials say that percentage is declining.

"It shows that a) athletes are more frightened, and b) that the testing is improved," said Jacques Rogge, vice chairman of the IOC Medical Commission.

These were the final games for Samaranch, whose wife died hours after the opening ceremony. He went back to Spain to bury her and returned a day later. He has praised the Sydney games throughout.

He said the games "could not have been better."

"I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever," Samaranch said, and the stadium shook with cheers. He has applied that moniker to games in the past; a notable aberration was Atlanta, which he called simply "most exceptional."

And 2004? Despite a slow start, Athens got an endorsement Sunday from the IOC, whose director-general said there is "no Plan B." Some speculated the next Summer Games might return here if Greece wasn't properly prepared.

"I know that Greece lost time," said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who helped secure Athens' bid and was re-enlisted anew as head of the organizing committee.

"But whatever it will need," she said, "we will do it."
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