SYDNEY — With the Sydney 2000 Olympics in full swing, the country is getting used to having 3.5 billion TV viewers around the world watching our every move. This city’s 4 million citizens are positively basking in the glory of staging the world’s best Games yet. And to the south, Melbourne is just as proud of hosting a pivotal World Economic Forum.
Call us naive, but few here expected to see the world’s media reporting not only the triumphs of the two biggest current events in international business and sports, but also a couple of the most embarrassing sideshows ever to rain on our parades — for instance, the protests that marred the World Economic Forum.
In the light of the Battle of Seattle at last year’s World Trade Organization fiasco, it was inevitable that the professional protesters, those self-proclaimed champions of the poor, should descend en masse on Melbourne. Yet not even the well-drilled police anticipated the dedication with which the protesters provoked and resisted baton charges.
Organizers of future international business conferences, including those in Japan, will have to take note of the vicious lessons learned at the Battle of Melbourne. The September 11 (S11) Alliance has emerged from the bloody fray well equipped for their next onslaught on delegates attending international business sessions debating free trade, open markets and technological advances.
The unedifying scenes took place outside Melbourne’s palatial Crown Casino, the playground of the Asian jet set. The casino had to close its gambling tables, losing its owner — Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer — a fortune. Outside, the only apparent beneficiaries were hordes of lawyers who plied their advice to mangled protesters. Now the police are being sued for millions.
Many of the placard-wielding, self-styled poor professing anger at the evils of economic globalization were holidaying students bused in from across the country. Welcome to the next generation of socialists manning the barricades. Many more were unionists quite at home at these rent-a-crowd outings. Oddly, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, has endorsed globalization, although the union boss emphasizes that it needs to be built around people, not corporations.
From Microsoft chief Bill Gates down, the speakers pounded the productivity and technology themes. In passing, Gates delivered a thinly disguised rebuke to Australia’s telecom giant, Telstra. The half-privatized Telstra is hobbled by the Howard government’s inability to sell off its bureaucratic half.
Treasurer Peter Costello put the boot in further by suggesting a Telstra selloff would help the floundering Australian dollar recover. Despite Australia having a dream run in economic recovery — not even the United States can match our growth rate over the past two years — our dollar is at record lows against the U.S. dollar and the yen.
The financial commentator Robert Gottliebsen likens Australia’s dilemma to Japan’s malaise. “What worries me about Australia is we still don’t understand the currency problem,” he says. “This is horribly like the Japanese during the past decade.”
Japanese delegates who managed to push into the WEF were atypically frank. “We have been on the same model for 30 years,” lamented Hirotaka Take uchi, dean of Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy. “It’s about time we found a new religion. Young Turks in Japan are in their mid 60s. The university system is a farce.”
But Richard Koo, chief economist at Nomura Research Institute, argued that Japan’s fiscal-stimulation program had finally stabilized the economy.
To which Kenneth Courtis, Asia vice chairman for Goldman Sachs and a critic of Japan’s “massive debt trap,” retorted: “I don’t believe a word of it.”
The poor in developing countries got lots of optimistic words from WEF delegates, of course. With all that hysterical chanting outside, what else? But reality hit home when a Hong Kong executive warned them to prepare for the lowering of trade barriers when China becomes a full member of the WTO.
“If I were you, I would watch out about the WTO,” said David Tang, chairman of Shanghai Tang. “All the stuff you’re going to make, we’re going to completely destroy in terms of costs. We can make things so much more cheaply than you. I would watch out for your markets being infiltrated by us.”
The message of Melbourne’s WEF completely bypassed the wit of the protesters outside, of course. They were already boarding buses for their next onslaught, the Sydney Olympics Games. There, a planned protest against wrongs done to Aborigines excited their envy. Back to the barricades!
With 33,000 foreign journalists in town, Sydney Olympics has already drawn loads of not-always-welcome media scrutiny. First up was Canberra’s refusal to admit two shady members of the IOC “Olympic family.”
Hong Kong-based Carl Ching, vice president of the International Basketball Federation, and Gafur Rakhimov of Uzbekistan, an executive board member of the International Amateur Boxing Association, were banned from attending the games for alleged involvement in organized crime.
Catching all the drug cheats will be beyond the prowess of a vigilant Sydney drug laboratory. Australian scientists who developed a blood test for the EPO performance-boosting drug had a hard enough time getting the Lausanne-based IOC to approve their test in time for Sydney. They cannot hope to catch all those crafty athletes who want to win gold at any cost.
With all Australia at fever pitch over the big events now exciting the world, everyone here is hoping the Sydney testers don’t really find much performance-enhancing drug abuse among the international competitors. True, better to catch the cheats than let them win dishonorably. But who needs all that plaintive wailing from exposed drug-takers and the outraged indignation of the IOC board members and media from the cheats’ home countries?
Whoever wins gold for whichever nation, one thing is already apparent. Australia must be counted a winner for learning rapidly how to host world-class events in an imperfect world.
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