SYDNEY, Australia — Workers clamber over Sydney Harbor Bridge's stately arch, hanging the first of 170,000 bulbs that will etch five rings into the city's skyline during the Olympic Games.
The giant rings taking shape this week will dominate the city, just as the 2000 Games have cast their shadow over other Australian news in recent months.
But beyond the five-ring circus of preparations for the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Games, Australians have had plenty of issues to deal with as their country looks to its future while struggling with its past.
Over the past year, Australia has led a multinational peacekeeping force into a neighboring country, searched for ways to reconcile its black and white communities, voted not to drop Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and wrestled with a new tax system.
November's referendum on the monarchy highlighted the struggle of a young nation to come to terms with its future shape and its colonial past. Australians had a heated debate over whether their nation should become a republic and replace the queen with an elected head of state.
Opinion polls showed a clear majority of Australians wanted to ditch the queen — arguing she was an anachronism and throwback to the nation's history as a British penal colony.
But the republican vote was deeply divided over how a new head of state should be elected and eventually the referendum came down heavily in favor of retaining the monarch.
The Olympics bring a new indication that the queen's influence is waning. Tradition holds that the head of state opens the Games, but Queen Elizabeth will not do so. Instead, her representative here, Governor-General Sir William Deane, will do the honors.
Another unresolved battle with the past that continues to haunt Australia is how to reconcile its Aboriginal and white populations and atone for past mistreatment of indigenous Australians, who now make up a small, underprivileged minority of the population.
Conservative Prime Minister John Howard has rejected repeated calls to offer a blanket apology to Aborigines for policies of the past, including the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents.
That refusal to apologize has enraged Aborigines, who say they will use the Olympics as a stage on which to showcase their grievances to the world.
Although most leaders advocate peaceful protest, a few activists have threatened violent disruptions.
Aborigines now number just 386,000 in the population of 19 million. They are the worst educated, least healthy and most-likely-to-be jailed members of society.
But despite the problems, there have been notable successes, said Dr. Gerard Henderson, head of the Sydney Institute, an independent think tank.
Henderson points to improvements in land rights for indigenous Australians as a significant advance. "There has been a lot of change and by and large it has been successful," he said.
"There are not many people marching in the streets about land rights," he said.
While wrestling with domestic issues, Australia has also continued to play the role of a regional power with varying degrees of success.
Its leadership of a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor won Australia international praise but wrecked the country's relationship with Indonesia.
Howard was instrumental in pulling together a force to quell violence that erupted in East Timor after the province voted in a U.N.-sponsored referendum Aug. 30, 1999, to break away from Indonesia.
Diplomatic efforts have been under way for nearly a year to mend the broken fences between Canberra and Jakarta.
But after the praise over East Timor, Howard's government was accused of being asleep at the wheel earlier this year when it was taken by surprise by coups in Fiji and the Solomon Islands that threatened to destabilize the South Pacific region.
The Australian government — seen by many as the superpower of the South Pacific — imposed sanctions on Fiji and played host to cease-fire negotiations between warring factions on the Solomon Islands. But many said the action came too late, after Fiji's economy was wrecked and dozens of people were killed in the Solomons.
In a development that will hit Olympic visitors in the hip pocket, Howard's conservative government introduced a new 10 percent goods and services tax July 1 that has raised prices of restaurant meals and cab fares — among plenty of other things.
There were fears of economic meltdown as stores failed to come to grips with the new system, but in the end the introduction of the new tax regime went smoothly.
And Henderson expects the Olympics will go equally smoothly, with sporting fervor overwhelming concerns over mass protests.
"I suspect the Olympic Games will be successful," he said. "Australians like their sport."