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.
Freeman, who had been a secret selection to light the Olympic flame, then ran up four flights of stairs, crossed a shallow pond and lit a ring of fire around her. After a nervous delay, the cauldron then rose above her head and made the slow journey up a waterfall to the top of the Olympic Stadium. Ten days later in the same stadium Freeman withstood immense public pressure to win the 400m final in the most anticipated race of the Games. It remains for many one of the greatest sporting highlights in our nation’s history. Fittingly, it was also Australia’s 100th Olympic gold medal since the first modern Games in 1896.
The Australian public supported every sport and every nation at the Games, turning the Olympics into one giant festive, all-inclusive party of goodwill and great competition. The most memorable images include the debut of triathlon at the Games on a course that included a swim in Sydney Harbour and finished in front of the Sydney Opera House, marathon runners crossing the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, gold medallists Kerri-Ann Pottharst and Natalie Cook providing the perfect climax to a 10-day beach volleyball party on Bondi Beach, and the swimming venue coming alive to the tune of wild applause as Australian swimmers, led by Ian Thorpe, excelled.
There were many outstanding performances in Sydney. Great Britain’s Steve Redgrave became the first rower to win gold medals at five consecutive Olympics. Dutch cyclist Leontien Zijlaard overcame an eating disorder to win three gold, making it one of the most uplifting stories of the Games. Dutch swimmers Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn each won multiple gold medals.
The brilliant Cuban women’s volleyball team won a record third consecutive gold medal. Another Cuban hero, heavyweight boxer Felix Savon, won his third gold medal, equalling the gold medal record in his sport. China swept all four table tennis events, a feat it also achieved in 1996. Athletics champs included 400m idol Michael Johnson of the US, British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, Czech javelin ace Jan Zelezny, and American female pole vaulter Stacy Dragila.
One of the surprises of the Games occurred when Russian wrestling giant Alexander Karelin endured his first Olympic defeat after three gold medals when he lost to American farm boy Rulon Gardner in the final of the super-heavyweight Greco-Roman event. Another was the win of Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon in the women’s triathlon on the first morning of Olympic competition, racing past Australian idol Michellie Jones in the shadow of the Opera House to become the sport’s first Olympic champion.
More than 10,000 athletes from 199 nations took part in the Sydney Games. Triathlon and taekwondo were new sports, while other new events included trampolining in gymnastics and a women’s event in modern pentathlon. The United States led the medal table with 40 gold.