It was the best of times, it was … well, the best of times.
Were the Sydney Olympics really 20 years ago? In some ways they seem like yesterday and in others, another age, another universe.
In September 2000, Sydney – the whole of Australia in fact – was in party mode. Day after day something more incredible was rolled out for the country to savour. Whether glued to TV sets, sitting in jammed-packed stadiums or just walking around, we were immersed in our own version of Disney’s Fantasyland.
Australia’s Cathy Freeman (pictured) carries both the Aboriginal and the Australian flags during a victory lap after winning the women’s 400m final at the Sydney Olympic Games September 25, 2000. Freeman won the race with a time in 49.11 seconds
Beach volley fans (pictured) watch the final between Brazilians Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede, and Australians Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst. The Australians won the match 2-0
Stockmen on horseback form the Olympic rings in the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium (pictured) during the opening ceremony
Australians Kerri Pottharst (pictured right)) and Natalie Cook (pictured left) hold their gold medals after winning the final of the beach volley competition at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, September 25, 2000
Nothing was impossible, dreams came true, promises were fulfilled and just when you thought you had witnessed the best sporting moment of your life, something else would come along and top it.
Try to measure the feeling in our capital cities over those magical few weeks with what is happening right now and there is simply no comparison. Hope, national pride and the dawning of a new century back then – against lockdowns, facemasks, heavy-handed police powers and the greatest economic uncertainty in the country’s history just 20 years later.
When veteran journalist, author and Olympic historian Harry Gordon wrote a book about the Sydney Olympics he titled it, ‘The Time of Our Lives’ and he was spot-on.
For those of us lucky enough to be at its epicentre there will never be anything like it again.
It wasn’t just what we saw on the track or in the pool and at every other venue around the city, it was in the cafes, on trains and buses: people smiling and happy, offering their seats to strangers.
I saw two Americans with a map trying to find their way to Circular Quay. They were almost knocked over in the rush of Sydneysiders offering to help.
I remember writing in a column at the time that Sydney 2000 had shown us the path to world peace – simply hold the Olympics in international trouble spots, 365 days a year.
Sydney was the third Olympic Games I covered in my career, and there would be four more before I hung up the laptop after Rio in 2016, but none of the others would come close.
Athletes say there is something special about a ‘home’ Olympics. The same goes for journalists and spectators.
There was one thing that Sydney had in common with all the other Games I covered though – the daily stories of doom, gloom and planning failures that filled newspapers and TV bulletins in the months leading up to the first day of competition.
Ian Thorpe (pictured) holds aloft the Australian flag after winning the men’s 400 metre relay event at the Sydney Olympics
The Cauldron containing the Olympic Flame rises above Torch Bearer Cathy Freeman (pictured) of Australia during the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay
Australian fans (pictured) during the Mens Cross Country Mountain Biking at Fairfield City Farm on Day Nine of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
It’s not surprising. Until that first starting gun goes off, journalists have nothing else to write about. Before Sydney 2000 burst into life we had controversy about US marching bands being imported for the Opening Ceremony and allegations of local officials accepting lavish gifts from the bid committees of future Games. We were told that oars would be entangled in a mass of reeds on the rowing course at Penrith, and construction of the main stadium at Homebush was put on hold as alternative accommodation was found for a colony of reportedly endangered green frogs.
It was all going to be a fiasco, a waste of money, we were led to believe. And then Cathy Freeman appeared out of nowhere in her other-worldly outfit and lit the malfunctioning cauldron and everything was suddenly perfect for the next 14 days.
Actually, I reckon it all started to come together 24 hours before that. The moment Australians – and the world for that matter – became true believers was when Greg Norman carried the Olympic torch across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
It doesn’t get more fair dinkum than that.
A stockman on horseback rides into Olympic Stadium (pictured) during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics
Australian fans joined international guests in the stadium (pictured) before the opening ceremony of the games
I was beyond fortunate to be a sports columnist covering that event in the city where I had grown up. I was blessed. My brief was simple: just go wherever you want, whenever you want, and write what you see and feel.
In sports-writing terms that’s like winning the lottery, only without the money.
Not that money could buy that experience. I saw just about everything there was to see – and not just the biggest events. I went out to the table tennis because I heard that Bill Gates had flown all the way from the US to watch that one event. I didn’t see Bill, but I got a good story. I went to the synchronised swimming to see the wonderful Aussie girls – our version of the Jamaican bobsled team I called them – finish last and celebrate with their families and friends as if they’d won gold.
I was there on the harbour when the Manly ferry pulled up alongside the skiff of two Aussie sailors who had just won gold and the passengers broke into a chorus of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi …’
I saw Kerrie Pottharst and Natalie Cook win the beach volleyball on the sands of Bondi in front of a cheer squad of giggling, jiggling bikini models, and Grant Hackett end the reign of King Kieren Perkins who fought every centimetre of the 1500m freestyle.
I saw cycling and rowing and boxing, football and wrestling. I saw smiles and tears and what seemed like a thousand dads taking corny photos of their kids pretending to hold up the Olympic flame.
Stockman riding horses and carrying the Australian flag (pictured) rode into the stadium as part of the opening ceremony
Australian fans painted as their national flag cheer on their team during the Olympic women’s soccer preliminary round against Brazil in Sydney (pictured)
But for all the amazing things I experienced over that amazing fortnight there are three that stand out; three that still make the hairs on the back on my neck stand up whenever I think of them.
The first happened at the Opening Ceremony. The Main Press Centre was right next door to the stadium and for weeks thousands of journalists and photographers had been based there alongside the huge, empty edifice – a colourless, lifeless monolith, giving no hint of what was to come.
To us it was just a workplace. Nothing out of the ordinary.
And then, on the afternoon of September 15, it started to fill. Sardine-packed trains and buses began pulling up and a mass of people, all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities poured into the precinct, transforming it into a sea of colour, noise and excitement.
I had the first paragraph of my column written right there and then: If you build it, they will come …
When every seat in the stadium was filled and the prelims were over they turned off all the lights and started a count-down.
Australia’s Natalie Cook (pictured right) celebrates with teammate Kerri-Ann Pottharst (pictured left) after defeating Brazil in the final of the women’s beach volleyball competition at Bondi Beach, September 25, 2000
The Australians (pictured) win the gold in the beach volleyball at Bondi Beach in Sydney in front of hundreds of fans
‘Ten, Nine, Eight …’ the crowd of over 110,000 counted along, and when they got to ‘One …’ there was the moment I’ll never forget. A spotlight cut through the darkness and lit a doorway and with the crack of a stockwhip a rider charged on his brumby to the centre of our field of dreams.
There was plenty to see that night; plenty to bring a tear to the eye and a patriotic lump to the throat, but for some reason I always remember the stockwhip breaking the silence like a gunshot and the breakneck ride of our modern-day Man From Snowy River.
I only had to wait 24 hours for memory number two. The men’s 4x100m freestyle relay, final event of the opening day of competition. In the lead-up to the Games the world’s fastest swimmer, USA’s brash, loudmouthed but impossible-not-to-like Gary Hall Jnr had made the prediction that the Yanks would not only beat the Australians, they would: ‘smash them like guitars’.
Talk about fighting words. Ian Thorpe had already won the 400m freestyle earlier in the night, but this was the big one. Eight teams but only two that mattered – Australia versus USA and Our Thorpie swimming the last leg against Hall. Hometown heroes against the superstars who had never lost an Olympic final. Good versus Evil.
Michael Klim dived in first for Australia and climbed out 48.18 seconds later as the new world record holder. Chris Fydler was next, followed by Ashley Callus. By the time Thorpe hit the water the Aussies were still in front but not by much.
At the final turn Hall had taken the lead. Four years later when I interviewed him about the race he denied that Thorpe had ‘swum over the top of him’ on that incredible last lap, but that’s exactly what happened.
Sportswriters aren’t supposed to cheer at sporting events, it’s not the done thing, but bugger that. On that night etiquette and sanity went out the window. The Aussie press corps pushed our chairs back and jumped up and down waving our arms, yelling ‘Goooo, Goooo, Goooo’ as Thorpie pulled Hall back, stroke by stroke until he hit the wall a split second in front in world record time.
And then the piece de resistance: Klim led his team-mates on the air guitars.
It would take something extraordinary to match that. Cathy Freeman provided it.
Memory number three, as if you hadn’t guessed, came nine days later at the stadium.
Australia’s Ian Thorpe (pictured right) celebrates with teammates Michael Klim (pictured second from right), Chris Fydler, and Ashley Callus (pictured left) after winning gold and setting a new world record in the men’s 4X100m freestyle relay event at the Sydney 2000 Olympics
Australia’s Ian Thorpe (pictured) celebrates after setting a new world record to win the gold medal in the 400m men’s freestyle swimming at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
My opening paragraph for that column was: ‘It’s not easy to run 400m. Try doing it with 18 million people on your back.’
That’s what Freeman did that night. Rarely, if ever, has an athlete been under more pressure. Without applying for the job she had been appointed the face, heart and spirit of the Games – a symbol of Australia’s past and present. The poster girl for reconciliation.
Plus she was expected to win.
My number one memory of that night wasn’t Cathy hitting the front on the final turn and powering away to take gold. It wasn’t her putting her hand over her mouth and sinking to the ground or taking off her shoes and dancing. It wasn’t even the lap of honour with her two flags.
It was the flashes.
As she ran that one fabulous lap of the track, thousands of camera flashes marked her progress, matching her every step of the way. From the front row of the stadium to the highest seat they illuminated in unison, as if choreographed. The greatest lightshow in Australian sporting history.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Never will again.
I didn’t go to the Closing Ceremony. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to acknowledge the Games were over.
They were just that good.
Stockmen on horseback ride with flags showing the Olympic rings in the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony September 15, 2000. Athletes from 199 nations are participated in the XXVII Summer Olympic Games