SYDNEY, Australia -- In a ceremony that was marked by the kitsch of drag queens and oversize kangaroos and that climaxed with fireworks roaring from Olympic Stadium to Sydney Harbor, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch brought the Sydney Games to a close Sunday by declaring them the best ever.
"Thank you and goodbye. Au revoir. Adios. A bientot," Samaranch said in an ad-libbed valedictory that not only drew down the curtain on a memorable Games for Australia and for the Olympic movement but that also signaled the beginning of the end of his 20 years atop the IOC.
Samaranch, 80, retires next July. "These are my last Games as president of the IOC," he told a crowd of about 100,000 people at Olympic Stadium. "They could not have been better.
"Therefore, I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever," he said, and the stadium shook with noise.
A fire-eater performed during the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics Sunday at Olympic Stadium in Sydney. (AP Photo)
The Sydney Games showcased the spectacular growth in size and in influence the Olympic movement has enjoyed under Samaranch. At the same time, they illustrated the formidable challenges that the movement must confront as it moves now to consider a future without him.
The most visible challenge: the fight against doping. At least 40 cheaters were caught in pre-Games doping tests; eight cheaters tested positive in Sydney. Five cheaters lost medals.
But, after the commercial excesses of the 1996 Atlanta Games and the failures there of transportation and technology, and after two years of scrutiny resulting from the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, the Sydney Games showed that the Olympics can still get done, can still be fun and can provide -- perhaps more than any other platform--incredibly potent symbolic opportunities to bring people together.
The Games also served in a peculiar way to humanize Samaranch to many. Insiders have long known him as warm and gracious, but he has often seemed to the world at large as aloof, even autocratic. His wife died just hours after the opening ceremony; he flew back to Spain to bury her, then returned to Sydney.
A muti-sided sign in Olympic Stadium bid farewell to the crowds during closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics Sunday in Sydney. The Games are scheduled to be conducted in Athens in 2004. (AP Photo)
He was welcomed Sunday night at the closing ceremony with warm applause.
He started his speech by telling the crowd, "Seven years ago, I said, 'And the winner is ... Sydney. Well, what can I say now? Maybe with my Spanish accent: Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
And the crowd roared back with the now-familiar response: "Oi! Oi! Oi!"
"The most important thing," Samaranch said in an interview before heading to the stadium, "is we have showed that the Olympic Games are stronger than ever."
No city could have provided a more beautiful backdrop for the Games or friendlier volunteers -- 46,000 of them -- and no city embraced the Games the way they were embraced here.
About 7 million tickets, a record 90 percent of the total available, were sold for these Games. Those who couldn't get in took to the streets to watch the events on big-screen TVs set up around town. A party atmosphere prevailed.
The trains mostly ran on time. Even the weather cooperated; it was mostly sunny during the Games.
"People will be able to duplicate these sorts of facilities," said Syed Shahid Ali, the IOC member from Pakistan. "But they will not be able to duplicate this atmosphere."
"A magical feeling," said Michael Knight, the president of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and state minister for the Olympics.
As they did in the opening ceremony on Sept. 15, athletes from South and North Korea walked together Sunday in the close. "Korea" was again represented by a single flag.
"I would never have expected this, to be quite honest. I was quite moved," former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger declared on his way out of the stadium Sunday night, adding that the joint march "gives some hope" for peace on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere around the world.
In another symbolic act of reconciliation that will long be remembered, Cathy Freeman, an Australian of Aboriginal descent, was picked to light the caldron that burned over the Olympic Stadium throughout the Games. She then won the women's 400 meters, setting off a national celebration.
On Sunday night, the Australian band Midnight Oil sang their protest anthem, "Beds Are Burning," and its members wore black clothes bearing in white the word, "Sorry," offering the symbolic apology for the treatment of Aborigines that conservative Prime Minster John Howard has declined to issue.
Samaranch paid particular tribute during the ceremony to "our friends" from the "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities." The islands are north of Australia's mainland. "You have helped to write a glorious chapter in the history of Australia," Samaranch said.
For their part, local organizers were confident that the Games had both furthered the reconciliation dialogue even as -- via TV and glowing news reports -- they introduced this vast island continent 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," Knight said.
Many members of the IOC, too, reveled in the moment.
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