Forget the sports - some of the hottest tickets for the Sydney Olympics next year are for Pina Bausch, Andrea Bocelli, Riccardo Muti and Sylvie Guillem. These top artists - together with thousands of other musicians, dancers, actors and painters - will achieve their own heights of human achievement in an Olympic arts festival for which the programme was announced in Australia yesterday. Culture at the Olympics dates back to Greek times, when sport and art were seen as equally important, and most of the modern Games have also had arts programmes - although oddly, until 1956, they were run competitively. Fortunately, a team of judges no longer has to decide whether Maxim Vengerov or Pinchas Zukerman - both violinists featured at the 2000 Arts Games - should score the perfect 10. There will be no battle for gold by wearers of tutus and no drug tests for contemporary dancers. 'Making poetry and music competitive just didn't work - of course,' said artistic director of the Olympic Arts Festival Leo Schofield. 'Now the arts are like a pendant to the sports: they remind us that there are different kinds of excellence.' For him, the Olympics festival is 'the biggest festival of them all: think of Edinburgh, Salzburg, Adelaide: wrap them up and multiply by 10'. It is 2.5 months long - opening on August 18, a month before the Games, and running to the end of the Paralympics in October. It is also, in another way, four years long. The cultural programme actually began in 1997 with the Festival Of The Dreaming - showcasing and commissioning work by indigenous artists from all over the world. Some of those performers who emerged through that festival have since taken their work worldwide - and it can be seen to have had a lasting effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island arts. In 1998, A Sea Change turned its attention to Australia and brought arts to small towns and big cities. This year, Reaching The World has been more diverse and, to some commentators, less successful. It is hard, if you are seeing a concert in London or Hong Kong, to distinguish between it being an 'Olympic event' and just another concert. Mr Schofield is a busy man as he is also responsible for the Sydney Festival in January. 'I see the Sydney Festival as a bit of a curtain raiser for the Olympic one - to get everyone in the mood.' With all those shows to juggle, not to mention budgets, is he a wreck? No, he laughed. 'I'm not a wreck: at the weekend I went to the north coast of New South Wales. I read novels and talked to friends and didn't think about festivals for four whole days.' That is probably, he admitted, the longest he had not thought about festivals for six years, since he was invited to Melbourne in 1993 to give the city's fading festival what he called 'a leg up'. With a background in marketing and a long-term history as a (highly opinionated) arts and lifestyle commentator, Mr Schofield was a good choice. He knew what the critics wanted, he knew what the audiences wanted and he was not afraid to try to combine the two. The Melbourne Festival (which opens tonight and is now seen to be a tremendous success) was in trouble. 'The government had given it three more years to succeed. So it was big pressure.' The 'Sydney lad' was always going to go home, and was invited to take the Sydney Festival through the millennium from 1998 to 2001, which was certainly enough for any festival director - until the Olympics ran into trouble with their cultural programme, the artistic director resigned and Mr Schofield was called in for another emergency leg up. 'Nothing had been done!' he exclaimed. In making their decisions they investigated cultural programmes in previous Olympics. Atlanta, for example, had some excellent companies and soloists - and terrible audiences. The media were not interested in a soprano hitting the highest Cs when they had athletes breaking world records - or testing positive for dodgy chemicals. 'So the decision was made to start Sydney's arts Olympics a month before the Games begin. We didn't want to be pancaked between sports events.' Sydney has a huge advantage over other Olympic cities - that iconic cultural building jutting out into the harbour, the Sydney Opera House. 'Many people come to Sydney and they want to see something, anything, in the Opera House.' So while the actual Games are on, the arts programme will itself become lean and athletic and focus only on the Opera House's concert halls and theatres. And, almost imperceptibly, the style of the programming will lighten up. 'The new opera productions - Simon Bocanegra and Gotterdammerung - will be early in the programme; later will be Don Giovanni and Tosca.' This is not, he said, a dumbing down. 'We just wanted the major premieres to be in critical isolation.' If there were one programme that he could not bear to see cancelled, which would it be? 'It's infanticide to kill any of my babies,' Mr Schofield protested, laughing. 'But the new commission for [Britain-based cutting-edge dance group, led by Australian-born Lloyd Newson] DV8 in Luna Park is very significant, and I couldn't bear to lose that.' Another great excitement is the return of the legendary Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch to Australia after an absence of 18 years. Bausch - who created her extraordinary work-with-red-flowers The Window Cleaner for Hong Kong's handover in 1997 - was initially hoping to create a millennium work for Sydney. The choreographer usually works by going to a place, doing research - meeting performers, hearing music, walking through the streets - then returning to Germany to create it. 'Pina was really interested in the idea of going to the outback and working with Aboriginal performers . . . but in the end there were so many commitments with the German Government for the millennium that we decided to stage the work she created for Lisbon.' The theme of the festival - if there is a theme - is less about individual achievement than scale. 'Everything is big: unlike other festivals there are no solo recitals, no chamber music.' So Mahler's Eighth Symphony will be performed at the enormous SuperDome, with more than a thousand performers, including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart and choirs from Australia and overseas. The opening event will be a dawn-to-dusk affair called Tubowgule - The Meeting Of The Waters - choreographed by Bangarra Dance Theatre's Stephen Page, and culminating grandly in the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. The visual arts element of the festival also promises to be huge. It includes exhibitions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, of Leonardo's greatest notebook (courtesy of Bill Gates and Microsoft), and 'the biggest exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander art ever'. For Mr Schofield there are other important themes, 'of energy, youth and quirkiness'. The energy is obvious - with top dance companies, music groups like Bang On A Can and circus performers like the teenage Fruit Flies Flying Circus, the potential of the human body will be celebrated in style. The quirkiness is shown in the cheeky mix of world premieres with cabaret and popular spectacle. 'It is about the raffish melange that is Sydney.' And the youth comes through in the programming - including the Fruit Flies, the Australian Youth Orchestra and Hong Kong's Asian Youth Orchestra.