Finishing outside the medals

There it sat, disconsolate and unheralded, all at sea at the end of a Sydney wharf.

The Florida World Pavilion, grandiosely named, and even more grandiosely sited on the harbor foreshore, has, alas, proved something of an also ran in the great Olympic contest of Making an Impression.

Set up to promote the tourist and commercial virtues of the Sunshine State during the Olympic Games -- a grandiose exercise that Orlando and Tampa Bay governments hope themselves to host in 2012 -- the pavilion instead found Florida recast as the Wallflower State, marooned in an ocean of indifference. From the sports-loving masses to the corporate movers and shakers, no one bothered to pay much attention.

There were a few flurries of interest following its Sept. 8 opening. (It closes Oct. 8.) A group of Seminoles joined with local Aborigines in a healing ceremony; Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris made contact with local trade officials, and various dignitaries dropped by. And the place drew a decent amount of attention with its "Newsmaker Breakfasts," serving up interview subjects in the hope that journalists who outnumbered athletes by 3-to-1 at these Games would come sniffing around. But there was just too much noise in Sydney over September, too much sports action, too much street entertainment, too many parties, for Florida's plaintive voice to be heard.

People were tuned into one thing, the Olympics, and as Atlanta discovered four years ago, anything on the periphery just didn't get a look in. Restaurants away from Olympic venues stayed empty, no one went to the zoo, the museums were deserted. Even the hospitality pavilions set up around the harbor by major corporations were struggling to entice guests to sample their largesse.

Not that there was much to entice passersby in Florida's Sydney enclave. Visiting the pavilion -- actually part of an old wharf building that temporarily housed a casino -- was rather like finding oneself stuck in the kitchen while the best party of the year rages out on the patio.

There was a desultory air of torpor and irrelevance about the whole enterprise. While the occasional visitor rattled around the exhibit space, the staff sat chatting, watching the boats come and go while the security guard amused himself on the Daytona USA video machine.

The exhibits and displays had an equally half-hearted air about them. A few handicrafts, some Seminole Indian displays, a bit on golf, some fishing flies, pictures of Cape Canaveral. Nothing to engage today's demanding consumer who expects hands-on displays and inter-active challenges.

Although there was one eye-catching exhibit. There, tucked away in a corner, was at first glance, a body, lying on a hospital bed with a drip running into its arm. Closer inspection revealed a dummy, there to promote Orlando's National Center for Simulation but somehow symptomatic of the whole project.

It did seem incongruous that the pavilion, which hardly seemed to have any pulse at all, was actually dead center in the heart of the greatest show on earth.

The Olympic Games Media Center, with its cheerful outback pub, was right next door, so there was never any shortage of press people hanging around. Walk five minutes one way and you had the casino in all its garish splendor; five minutes the other took you to one of the hugely popular live sites that were set up around Sydney, so that those without tickets could watch the contests unfold on a giant TV screen showing Olympic highlights. Locals and visitors alike would flock to them with their picnic baskets and wine for an evening of sports action and partying.

Carry on for another 100 meters and you reached ground zero of the Olympic party scene -- Heineken House, a beer-hall-cum-mosh-pit that served as the Sydney HQ for the Dutch team and anyone else who wanted in. Another hundred yards would have taken you to Darling Harbor itself, a nonstop venue for the boxing and weightlifting, pin trading and street entertainment.

In short, this was as bustling, colorful and entertaining a location as any during the Olympic Games fortnight, and doubtless the reason why the Florida organizers chose it.

Not that the staff weren't trying to drum up interest.

Florida university students working at the pavilion as assistants were on the streets handing out pens and brochures, and the crowds did start to pick up.

"In the first week the numbers were down," said project manager and Orlando native Patrick Chapin. "People were focusing on the Games, but in the second week it really took off. We had about four or five times the numbers of the previous week.

"We are very pleased with the numbers," he said. "People were thrilled with the exhibit."

The pavilion even managed to conjure up an Olympic angle, although it has no official connection with the bid to stage the 2012 Games on Florida soil. U.S. Olympic Committee rules forbid international lobbying; thus, Harris was on hand to promote trade partnerships and other agendas not likely to antagonize those who will pick between Florida and several other U.S. cities as the-site selection process grinds forward. To finance the $750,000 pavilion, the state of Florida paid $300,000; the rest came from private donors and the Seminole Indian Tribe, which kicked in $200,000. Keeping their hands clean, the actual organizers of Florida's Olympic bid gave nothing.

Still, Ed Turanchik, CEO and president the Tampa-based Florida 2012 campaign, was in Sydney picking up pointers on how the Games were being run and the pitch the city used to snare the event in the first place. He drew heart from the similarities of the two cities, telling the news sheet published by the pavilion: "They are both on the coast, offering a wonderful harbor experience. Also both Florida and Australia offer culinary choices and wonderful environmental scenery."

Culinary choices?

He also remarked correctly that the crucial factor in a winning bid was to show that you could operate a smooth transportation system, something Atlanta couldn't do but which Sydney managed with spectacular success, despite serious misgivings from locals leading up to the event.

But the pavilion newspaper didn't get it quite right.

"Florida 2012 officials are taking note of Sydney's transportation network, which shuttles participants and spectators from remote western towns such as Pendrith to eastern beachfront suburbs such as Bondi Beach."

For a start, it's Penrith, and far from being an isolated settlement on the edge of the outback, it is in fact a major city well inside the greater Sydney conurbation.

But that's a minor quibble. Sydney has shown the others how it can be done, and while its verve and organizational ability seemed to intimidate the contingent from Athens into stunned silence, the Floridians seemed eager to accept the challenge.

And while the pavilion may not have set the world on fire down under, it had one thing going for it: The view for the closing ceremony fireworks was great.

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