SYDNEY, Sept. 15 -- The countdown to the 2000 Olympics reached zero Friday with the dawning of the day Australians have waited for since their nation was awarded the Games six years ago and, with the magic moment having finally come, they could no longer contain their enthusiasm.
As Australia's best-known international sports hero carried the Olympic torch across the Sydney's Harbour Bridge, thousands of people broke through barricades and joined in. Golfer Greg Norman, taking his turn in bringing the flame to its final destination, was surrounded by humanity.
But rather than being a dangerous scene, it turned out to be a joyful celebration of the start of Sydney's big day. Police had to close down the bridge for 40 minutes in the midst of rush hour until Norman finally could make his way across the span and finally relinquish the torch.
"Everybody had a smile on their face, I'm really rejuvenated," he said. "I never anticipated the crowds. I was caught by surprise.
"Seeing the enjoyment this has given the people of Australia, I think this is going to be the turning point of the Olympics. I think these Games will turn a curve for the Olympic movement."
The opening ceremonies for the Sydney Games, a four-hour spectacle mixing Australian culture with the traditions that carry from one Olympics to another, were scheduled for 6 p.m. (3 a.m. EDT). If the script is followed to the letter, the Olympic flame will be lighted at 9:35 p.m. (6:35 a.m.) -- thus signaling the start of the biggest athletic carnival on earth.
During the 16 days that follow, athletes from almost 200 nations will compete for a record total of 300 gold medals. In addition, however, there will be the inevitable controversy, some of which appeared Thursday when the German-born assistant coach of the Brazilian swimming team was quoted as saying he believed drug use at the Games would be rampant.
Michael Lohberg reportedly told a Brazilian newspaper that, "the athlete is either clean or he is fighting for gold. Both are not compatible." In addition, Lohberg said that, "only an idiot," would allow himself to be caught with drugs in his system and that the testing system being used by the International Olympic Committee was in place merely to give the IOC an, "alibi."
Those comments made it clear that the use of and the detection of drugs was likely to be one of the overriding stories of the Sydney Olympics. On this day of celebration, however, the festivities overwhelmed any negative thoughts.
The Olympic extravaganza, which grows larger each time it is held, will attract an estimated 3.7 billion to television screens around the world and the Australian Tourist Commission expects the publicity generated by the Olympics will bring 22 million visitors and $87 billion to the country over the next four years.
"It will be the biggest adverstisement for Australia in living history," said commission managing director John Morse. "There will be an amazing collage of places and people which will open the world's eyes to more of our country."
As athletes, officials and spectators began to flow into the city over the past week, Olympic fever truly gripped Sydney. But it begain to reach new heights Thursday night when the Olympic torch, lighted in the traditional ceremonies in Greece earlier this year and carried around Australia for the past 100 days, finally reached the center of Sydney.
For the first time, the lights representing the Olympic rings which had been constructed on Harbour Bridge were illuminated and fireworks blazed above the harbour itself.
Opera singer Andrea Bocelli, international pop star Olivia Newton John and tennis player Pat Rafter were among those carrying the torch as it was brought through the central business district.
Although 12 Olympic soccer games tookplace before the opening ceremonies, there will be a flood of competition beginning Saturday. Events in 19 sports will be contested on the first full day of activity, including basketball, swimming and boxing.
Thirteen gold medals will be awarded Saturday, including four in swimming, two in judo, two in cycling, two in shooting and one each in fencing, weightlifting and triathlon.
The triathlon will make its Olympic debut Saturday when the women competitors will take part in the grueling event that includes swimming, cycling and a cross-country run. The winner of that ordeal will become the first Olympic champion of the 21st Century and an Australian is favored.
Australian star Ian Thorpe also is a heavy favorite in the men's 400-meter freestyle, which will be contested Saturday night. It is an event in which he set a world record four months ago. The U.S. men had the best qualifying time in the 4x100 freestyle relay, which also will be decided Saturday.
The weather was expected to cooperate with the opening ceremonies, just as it has during the days leading up to the start of the Games. Skies have been generally clear, temperatures have been in the 70s and then cooled off sharply in the evenings of the Australian spring.
Preliminary soccer matches on Wednesday and Thursday were played in the cool night. The defending gold medal champion women's team from the United States opened play Thursday night with a 2-0 victory over rival Norway.