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Fittingly for an Olympic Games that was, more than most, about beginnings and endings, the honour of carrying the Australian flag and leading the team at the closing ceremony was given to veteran swimmer Petria Thomas.

Her role in the last rites for the Athens Games, due to conclude in the early hours of this morning, Sydney time, capped a tumultuous two weeks for Thomas. She won the gold medal that had eluded her at two previous Games. She picked up another couple in the relays. She celebrated her 29th birthday. And she announced her retirement.

"For me this was just the greatest moment, the icing on the cake," she said. "I just hope all the people who have helped me in my career are sharing that moment with me now."

Earlier, Australia had ended the last full day of competition with a remarkable streak of five silver medals.

The women's basketball team were again deprived of a gold by the United States. Kayaker Nathan Baggaley was twice a runner-up, once on his own, once with Clinton Robinson. Diver Mathew Helm snatched a silver with a final effort that scored perfect 10s from four of the seven judges.

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The best performance, though, came from the unheralded men's 4x400 metres relay team. John Steffensen, Mark Ormrod, Patrick Dwyer and Clinton Hill - hardly household names - made the finals only because the Jamaicans were disqualified in their heat.

They were fifth coming into the final leg, but Hill swept past the runners from Nigeria, the Bahamas and Britain to finish second behind the US. "I knew we were in second. I just didn't know how far they were behind me. I was ready to start throwing my elbows out," Hill said.

The fleetfoot foursome were the first men to win a track medal for Australia since Rick Mitchell finished second in the 400m in Moscow in 1980.

Their performance is unlikely to avert a protracted post-mortem into Australia's poor showing in the athletics, but it did help to ensure a happy homecoming for the team.

When Edwin Flack, the "Lion of Athens", won Australia's first gold medals at the first modern games, for the 800m and 1500m, he was worshipped like the gods of ancient days. "His departure from the Olympic city," one

newspaper reported, "was a farewell befitting an Alexander the Great".

Back home, his achievements were honoured by commemorative medals, crowns of olive branches and ornate diplomas.

Today's sporting gods can expect a more exuberant public welcome when they arrive at Sydney Airport on Wednesday, to be greeted by the Prime Minister, John Howard.

They look like returning with 49 medals, including a record 17 gold. The team - especially its swimmers, cyclists, divers and rowers - has exceeded all expectations.

So, too, did Athens. In the end, all members of that far-flung assemblage of athletes, coaches, officials and media known as the Olympic family happily agreed: it was one hell of a homecoming.

Such occasions do not always work out well. Sometimes the guests find they have outgrown the old family home. Sometimes the hosts are disappointed to discover their generosity is repaid with ingratitude. And, of course, even the most close-knit families can turn dysfunctional.

Not here. Despite all the anxieties about stadium roofs, unfinished roads and terrorist attacks, Athens managed to produce a Games worthy of a historic return to its birthplace.

From the elegant opening ceremony to the final running of the marathon, the 2004 Olympics were friendly, efficient, spectacular and, barring last-minute acts of malevolence, safe.

It was an extraordinary achievement for a traditionally chaotic city and for a small nation, with barely half the population of Australia, whose confidence was shattered when it was rejected as the host of the centenary Games in 1996.

First, an upset win in the European soccer championship. Now, a successful shot at staging the most prestigious show on earth.

Little wonder that Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who has been to Athens 2004 what Michael Knight was to Sydney 2000, last night breathed a sigh of relief, puffed her chest out with pride and prepared to party.

The greatest Games ever? It is pointless even to ask.

Some Games, such as Atlanta in 1996, have been demonstrably flawed. Most have been good, or great, in different ways. Beijing four years hence will be different again.

So Australia and the rest of the Olympic family moves on, recovers and regathers for the next reunion.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for Australian Craig Lovett, who is going for a clean sweep in the Olympic Stadium later today.

There will be no medals, though. Lovett's Melbourne-based company, Cleanevent, has the €50 million ($85.5 million) contract to clear up after the Games.

"No worries. We'll have the place clean as Disneyland," said Lovett, who controls a workforce of 2500.

He will also clear up the Paralympic Games, before returning to Australia for the Gold Coast Indy 300 car race and the Melbourne Cup.

Now that's a real challenge.

Kez (copy & paste from Aussie Olympic Website: John Huxley in Athens)

WELL DONE 'DOWNUNDER'.
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