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Sydney's game plan

letter from australia

The district of Homebush in Sydney is currently full of rather cheap and dilapidated bungalows - but that won't last. In 30 months, these houses will be vacated by their owners and tenants, and let for large sums of money, for Homebush is the site of the Sydney Olympics and ParaOlympics in September and October 2000.

It is not just the Homebush houses that will be vacated. In the past 12 months of visiting, I have yet to meet a taxi driver who says he or she will be in Sydney for the Games. And that looks like trouble to me. For while the main Olympic site forges ahead with massive building works, the support systems may, it seems, be inadequate. On arrival at the Sydney International Terminal, my jumbo had too much luggage for one conveyor (so how do you find your bags when they might be on the other belt?) The airport is undersized, in spite of extension work. And the problem of getting transport out to the Olympic site has not been resolved at all. The Paramatta river, an obvious solution, is being used exclusively for vips; there is talk of creating a vast, circular one-way system out of the main east-west roads. But no one knows. Perhaps this is because of the spin being put around that virtually everything being done for the games is not, in fact, for the games at all: it is for Sydney. It was all going to happen anyway; announcements everywhere from the airport into the city proclaim this.

For all that, the Olympic site and the support structure needed for it are well under way. The new Homebush railway station, not unlike Stansted in all except light, is open, at least at the weekends. The rail link to the airport is due to open around now. And the site has had its first big test and trial run: the Royal Easter Show, which went well.

Homebush was originally a tidal wetland, and still has remnants of major woodlands. What the white invader first made a farm became a stud and thence the local home of horse-racing. Later, the ground was mined for bricks and the world's second biggest abattoir was built. So, later, was an armaments factory. Recently parts were developed as the Bicentennial Park (1988) and, in the last few years, the Australian national sports centre was created on a site adjacent to the Olympic Park. The Olympic development of the site has remembered this history. The various blocks have used the plan of the abattoir to originate their siting.

True in this respect to the spin, the development is not just for the Olympics. The showground stadium and hall, the animal and produce blocks and so on are up and, presumably, running. When I visited in early March (the hottest day of the year on site, at over 40degrees - which would be truly awful for athletes and animals), they were testing the sound systems and completion of the final fitting out of seating and interiors was near.

As for the specifically Olympic facilities, they progress. The two largest cranes in the world lifted (on a day with a stable temperature of 18degrees) the main trusses of the Australia Stadium (seating 110,000 - 80,000 after the Olympics) into place to enable permanent shelter to the main seating. A retractable roof will span the opening (after the games), giving a completely indoor arena when needed. This venue is the largest in Australia, bigger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground, home to the 1956 Olympics. Other venues cluster around it. Only very particular sports (rowing, horse-riding, etc) have been located elsewhere, none more than 30 minutes away.

But these facts are relatively uninteresting, the type one might normally expect to find at a major sporting complex. What is fascinating is the effort made to handle the site as sustainable, in an ecologically sensitive manner. The site is seen as an extension of the Bicentennial Park. Great care has been taken to structure the ground so that it retains water (the resource that limits the viable size of the Australian population). The paving, for instance, is perforated by little soakaways. Shading has been exploited to the greatest possible effect, with the preservation of trees (and the addition of many specially planted). Several massive trees, and many smaller ones, have been completely repositioned. There is a small water park at the end of the main boulevard, helping aerate water for recycling.

Will the games work? After the disaster of the Atlanta transport fiasco it is hard to know. The facilities themselves ought to be excellent. Train access is good. Coaches have a fair chance, the Olympic Village (to become public housing) is near at hand. Cars will be more or less banned (only 2500 allowed per day). And it may be that visitors will not venture into Sydney itself. For Sydney, apart from the central business district, is a city in need of attention. The roads are a mess. Traffic is congested. The fabric is run-down and often looks temporary or transitional. The games may work where they are located, but whether the rest of Sydney will work is quite another matter. Perhaps that is why they talk of all the work as being for Sydney, not just the games: because they hope it will lift the city.

Ranulph Glanville is teacher

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