In September, 2000, the residents of the Harbour City and the people of Australia set the benchmark of how future Olympics would be measured by staging what IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch ultimately described as “the best Olympic Games ever.”
The Opening Ceremony on September 15 began with a lone horseman galloping his mount to the centre of the Olympic Stadium in front of 110,000 spectators. The entire production was a celebration of the Australian continent. During the Parade of Nations, North and South Korea marched together under the same flag, and four athletes from East Timor received a tremendous cheer as they paraded behind the IOC flag. The last team to appear in the stadium was Australia, with five-time Olympian and basketball captain Andrew Gaze proudly waving the flag at the front of Australia’s largest-ever team of 632 athletes.
Sydney 2000 marked a century of women’s participation in the Olympics. To recognise this, some of Australia’s finest female athletes carried the torch inside the stadium. Betty Cuthbert, the Golden Girl of the Melbourne Olympics, was pushed in a wheelchair by Raelene Boyle (Cuthbert’s movement was impaired by multiple sclerosis). Next, legends Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King all ran with the torch. Flintoff-King, the last Australian track gold medallist, then passed the torch to Cathy Freeman.
Australia at these Games
Since Sydney had been elected to host the Games in 1993, expectations had been high that the team chosen to represent Australia would be one of the most impressive ever. In front of always-vocal home fans, the Australian team lived up to this billing, achieving outstanding results across the spectrum of sports. Australia won 58 medals – 16 gold, 25 silver and 17 bronze – to finish fourth on the medal table behind the United States, Russia and China.
A team of 632 athletes, 349 men and 283 women, competed in the Games. Australia had representatives in each of the 28 sports on the program. Basketballer Andrew Gaze, at his fifth Olympics, carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony. The Olympic Oath was read on behalf of all athletes by hockey’s Rechelle Hawkes, who would end her career in Sydney as a triple Olympic champion.
The honour of carrying the Australian flag in the Closing Ceremony was given to one of the team’s youngest members, 17-year-old Ian Thorpe. He was, of course, also one of the true stars of the Games, winning five medals – three gold and two silver. Thorpe’s two gold medals on the opening night of competition, breaking a world record in the 400m freestyle and then coming from behind in the anchor leg to beat the dominant Americans in the 4x100m freestyle relay, ignited the Games. His other gold was in the 4x200m freestyle. Besides Cathy Freeman, he was the most celebrated champion of the Games.
Australia’s other gold medallists in the pool were all worthy champions, including a strong squad of men’s relay swimmers. The other individual gold medallists were Susie O’Neill, winner of the 200m freestyle and three silver medals; and 1500m freestyle champion Grant Hackett, with defending champion Kieren Perkins placing second.
The swimmers weren’t the only water babies to enjoy success. Australia scored a heart-stopping win in the first women’s water polo final, beating favourites the United States 4-3 after a last-second goal from Yvette Higgins. Sailing provided two gold medals, both in the 470 dinghy class, with Tom King and Mark Turnbull winning the men’s event and Jenny Armstrong and Belinda Stowell the women’s gold.
At the main stadium, Freeman’s 400m gold medal shone brighter than any other trophy awarded at the Games. There was also success in less publicised sports. Simon Fairweather gave Australia its first archery medal when he won gold in the men’s individual event. Shotgun shooter Michael Diamond won his second consecutive gold medal in men’s trap. Lauren Burns won the 49kg taekwondo crown, while beach volleyballers Kerri-Ann Pottharst and Natalie Cook set Bondi Beach ablaze by winning gold.
Australia also celebrated in three sports in which it is traditionally strong. Cyclists Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory teamed up to win the Madison event at the 'Dunc' Gray Velodrome. The Hockeyroos, Australia’s celebrated women’s hockey team, won its third gold medal from the past four Games, defeating Argentina 3-1 in the final. More than 10 million Australians watched the final on TV. Another popular victory occurred when the three-day eventing team of Phillip Dutton, Andrew Hoy, Matt Ryan and Stuart Tinney won Australia its third consecutive gold medal in the glamour equestrian event.
The success of the Australian team was not just in the medals; it was in the spirit and camaraderie shown within the team and externally with spectators, volunteers, officials and international competitors. The athletes were the star performers of one of the happiest moments in Australian history. It will long remain a golden Games for Australia.