Australians cheer as torch moves toward Games’ opening

SYDNEY, Australia, AP

Fireworks streamed from the Harbor Bridge and the legendary five rings blazed with light Thursday as the Olympic torch moved through downtown on its route toward the 2000 Summer Games.

Australian sprinter Melinda Gainsford-Taylor brought the torch into the Sydney Opera House grounds at dusk, passing it to the famed Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli. He held it aloft before thousands of cheering people crowded into Bennelong Point, then handed it to singer Olivia Newton-John, who carried it off into the night. Below, Sydneysiders watched from buildings along the harbor, and cars pulled to a stop on the bridge. Spectators thronged on the decks of the ocean liner Crystal Harmony, docked in Circular Quay, and Bocelli sang Verdi’s “Di quella pira.”

Half of the seats outside the opera house went to the general public; the other half went to those attending the Thursday night opera program.

It created an odd juxtaposition: On one side, youths in mohawks held Australian flags aloft and chanted “Aussie! Aussie!” while opera-goers in formal wear applauded sedately on the other side. In the crowd on the quay, chants and shouts erupted after a clarinet player performed a rendition of “Waltzing Matilda,” the unofficial national anthem.

Bocelli was a surprise guest in the torch ceremony. The blind singer 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 then ran in and the three stood triumphantly, with the torch blazing.

Australians who came to see the spectacle, on the eve of Friday’s opening ceremonies for the 2000 Summer Games, said such events presented the country’s best face to the world.

“Anything important always happens right here at the opera house,” said Gloria Garton, pressed up against a barricade with her husband. Allan. “Nighttime, it’s like fairyland down here.” Added her husband: “It helps people to forget all the world’s troubles.”

The opera house, Sydney’s signature landmark, opened in 1973 after 14 years of construction. Its unique three-pronged design has drawn comparisons to everything from palm fronds to sails to a Mayan temple.

The torch, which has consistently drawn large crowds as it makes its way to Olympic Park, was passed from Newton-John to tennis pro Patrick Rafter, who carried it on to Sydney’s Town Hall, where it was to stay overnight.