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Let The Games Begin
Exclusive Web-only interview with Sydney Olympics Minister Michael Knight

With the Sydney Olympic Games just seven weeks away--Sept.15 is D-Day--Olympics Minister Michael Knight appears remarkably relaxed. The affable organizing wizard behind the Games has survived a five-year tenure fraught with more than the usual scandals associated with putting on the world's largest sporting event. And things could still terribly go wrong. Yet Knight remains decidedly optimistic and enthusiastic about his job. Asked what keeps him awake at night, he replies, "You assume I sleep." TIME Asia's Aryn Baker spoke to the minister during a Hong Kong stopover on July 29. Edited excerpts:

TIME: You just spent the last few days in China and Japan. Shouldn't you be in Sydney?
I made a very deliberate decision a while ago to undertake some international visits and there are three reasons for that. Firstly, I want to reach out to show the world that we are open, we are inclusive, we are multicultural. We don't want to be insular. One of the criticisms made of Atlanta before the Games is that they were too American-centric, and that is certainly not how I want Sydney and Australia to be viewed. The second reason is that we have much to learn from others--from the people who ran the Atlanta Games, the Barcelona Games, the soccer World Cup in Paris, et cetera. The third reason is to be accountable. Sydney is lucky enough to host the Games, but we don't own them. They belong to the world, so it's very important that someone in my position travels around the world to attend functions, and address leaders and the international media on our preparations.

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TIME: Did you talk to Beijing about their pitch for the 2008 Olympics?
Not specifically. I have to be neutral, as the president of the [Sydney] organizing committee. Of course, I indicated to the Chinese that if they were selected this time next year to host the 2008 Games, then anything we could do to assist them as hosts, any information or experience we could pass on, we would do so willingly. But I can't involve myself in the bidding process.

TIME: Was it strange given China and Australia's close run in the bidding for the 2000 Games?
That's why it was all the more important to go to China. The Chinese have been very good losers, very charitable and gracious. Although we were competitors for the bid in 2000, and certainly our athletes will be competitors on the field, there is a very strong relationship between China and Australia. So the days of the bid are behind us.

TIME: So how are preparations going?
All the big things are done, and I am quietly confident. The staff are hired, the operational plans are done, the contracts are written for the delivery of various services by contractors, the budget position is secured, the buildings are all finished, the transport test events have been run, and the structures and the mechanisms are in place. But I am always conscious that you can be brought undone by little things, and in the case of the Olympics there are thousands of little things. So we need to be vigilant.

TIME: What are some of the micro-issues that could pose problems?
You have to make sure that each and every volunteer is properly trained, that each and every bus driver knows the route he or she is on. We don't want the problems Atlanta had where bus drivers were getting lost. As well, each of the people dealing with the Olympic teams in the Olympic Village need to be trained not just in their particular function, but also how to deal with teams from different cultures, different backgrounds and different expectations.

TIME: How would you describe the Sydney Games?
Right from the very first days of the bid, Sydney promised to run the Games for the athletes. That's something we have been very serious about delivering on because we take the view that the athletes are the stars of the show. We want to provide an environment for the athletes to perform at their best because that improves the Games for everybody. The Games are also a great opportunity to showcase Sydney and Australia as a tourist destination, as well as show the world what Australians can do.

TIME: Do you think that your emphasis on the athletes is all the more important because of the recent scandals that have beset the International Olympic Committee?
The Olympics as a competition never stopped being popular... you only have to look at the number of cities bidding to host the 2008 Games. There was a period in which the IOC itself became a spectator sport... but we all make mistakes. In the end it's the athletes that people want to go and watch, and the Olympic Games is undoubtedly the biggest and most prestigious, elite celebration of sport anywhere in the world, that will never go out of fashion.

TIME: How Australian is the Opening Ceremony going to be? Will you have koalas and kangaroos on bikes, a la Los Angeles? What kind of images will the world see? Knight: I would rather tell you very little about the Opening Ceremony because we would like it to be a surprise to both the people in the stadium and the four billion or so who will be watching on television around the world. What I can say is that the ceremony will be distinctively Australian. It won't be an imitation of anyone else's culture; all of the headline performers in both the opening and closing ceremonies are Australians. There will be some historical aspects, and there will be significant elements of indigenous culture--Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander--in the ceremony. Overall it will be entertaining and a celebration.

TIME: Who will be the final torchbearer? Who will light the Olympic cauldron?
I can't tell you, and I wouldn't tell you if I could. The decision is made ultimately by John Coates, the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, and myself, and John and I made a pact a long time ago that we would not make the decision until much closer to the event.

TIME: What will happen to Sydney after the Olympics? Will it continue to boom?
For us the benchmark is Barcelona. Barcelona's best year for tourism was not 1992, the year of the Games, or 1993, the year after the Games. It was last year. In every year since the Games the number of overnight hotel bed stays in Barcelona has increased. And that's because the world was introduced to Barcelona and saw Barcelona in a very positive light. We want to do the same with tourism in Australia, and do it more broadly in a business sense. We want the world to become more aware of Australia's capacity to do things, to build things, to run things, and to show that Australia and Sydney are not simply "flavor of the month."

TIME: How do you think Sydneysiders will cope with the massive influx of tourists during the Games?
Sydneysiders, like all Australians, are sports crazy. We are a tiny nation in terms of numbers--there are only 19 million of us--but Australian teams and Australian individuals are world champions in a whole range of sports. Australia finished 5th on the medal tally in Atlanta, ahead of many countries with much larger populations. So to have the world's biggest sporting event in Australia's backyard is the ultimate for a nation of sports fanatics.

TIME: Are you worried about scandals, particularly doping scandals, during the Games?
If someone gets caught cheating at the Games for using illegal drugs, banned substances, it's a two edged sword. At one level you risk people finger pointing, and saying "isn't this terrible," but I think it's good to catch these people and to prevent the cheats from winning. There will always be people spread across various nations who will try and cheat. It's important to recognize that it is a constant struggle [to catch the cheats], but it's a struggle that is worthwhile being involved in. The more we can do to weed cheats out, the better.

TIME: What about athletes taking human growth hormones? Can you test for that?
No, there is no test for human growth hormones.

TIME: So how do you prevent athletes from taking HGH? Knight: Because there is no test to determine whether HGH is naturally or artificially present in the body, we have to stop people from bringing it into the country in the first place. People have been caught trying to bring HGH into Australia, and they were caught because of the vigilance of Australian customs.

TIME: And it can't be manufactured locally?
Well, it can, but it is not the sort of thing you would go and place an order for if your are a cheat. Scientists also tell me that people using HGH often switch in the last few weeks of competition to steroids. And you can test, as we are, very thoroughly for steroids. At the moment we are not only randomly testing competitors in Australia but also competitors overseas.

TIME: There have been threats of Aboriginal protests during the Games, with one activist telling the BBC that cars would be burned on the streets to highlight the plight of indigenous people in Australia. Is this something you are worried about?
It's important to draw a distinction between protests at the time of the Games, and protests over the Games. The message coming back from all of the groups that we have talked to is that they are not opposed to the Games. In fact, they are very supportive of the Games and they are incredibly supportive of great Aboriginal athletes like Cathy Freeman and Nova Peris-Kneebone who they see quite rightly as role models for young Aboriginal kids and the community generally. There are some Aboriginal leaders who say that they would like to use the foreign media to publicize the non-Olympic grievances they have with the Federal Government and some of the state governments. Some groups will probably protest around the time of the Games--it's really a judgment call for them as to whether that really enhances their cause or not, and that's a decision for them to make.

TIME: What steps are being taken to prevent protests?
We won't allow anybody--no matter the cause--to demonstrate at the Olympic venues or in ways that disrupt athletes, spectators, or officials getting into the competition.

TIME: What about terrorist acts?
Police tell me that potential terrorists read newspapers, magazines and the Internet just like everybody else. So the more you talk about security preparations, the less effective they are. We have an integrated security model under the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan, a former senior officer in Britain with anti-terrorist experience, a fortuitous coincidence rather than a planned move. And we have strong relations with international security forces and the national security agencies within Australia. Since the Munich Games in 1972--when 11 Israeli athletes were killed in a terrorist act--everybody is conscious of the need to protect athletes and that will be done in a very thorough fashion. To turn Sydney into an armed camp may have some security benefits but it would detract from the value of the events. We want security to be strong, but to be as unobtrusive as possible.

TIME: What would you say you are most proud of in your work for the Sydney Games?
Starting the torch relay at Uluru (Ayers Rock), right in the center of Australia, without a doubt. It's a very spiritual place, a very sacred Aboriginal site, and to start there with Nova Peris-Kneebone, the first Aboriginal gold medallist at an Olympic Games, makes me proud. It was a very important part of the reconciliation process in Australia, and it was a very obvious statement of inclusiveness for all Australians in all parts of the country. I am also immensely proud of all the men and women that built all of those world-class facilities in a very short time.

TIME: What would you say you are the least proud of?
I suppose that we have made a number of mistakes along the way. I think the biggest mistake was not being more open with the Australian people about how the ticketing system worked. We picked up essentially the Atlanta model of ticketing, and we shouldn't have done that. We should have done things differently--and we eventually did. Having said that, it's impossible not to make mistakes in hosting an Olympic Games. You only become fully qualified to run an Olympic Games after you have run it. And then it's unlikely that you will be running another one in your own country in the near future.

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