Reflections on 2000 Olympics from behind the scenes

11 Oct 2020

So much was said in the media, around water coolers and the general public about the expectations put on her. This turned out to be her Games. Twenty years on, Cathy’s story is retold time and time again.

At the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games, outgoing International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch proudly proclaimed (Sydney) the best Olympic games ever!

But was it?

Rewind back to the 23rd of September 1993, when Samaranch announced “Syd-er-nee” to the world as the next city to host the 2000 summer Olympics beating Beijing and Manchester.

Australia was now faced with a seven-year deadline to deliver the Games and project a lifestyle envious to other countries while hiding its past shames.

Samaranch’s announcement created a movement for Aboriginal people to highlight their plight and issues using the Games on the world stage protesting their rights.

The 8th of July 2000 was an example of this when protesters marched from Redfern to Hyde Park in Sydney. This was one of many protests around Australia.

The Brisbane protests lasted for many days. Eighteen years later, similar protests happened during the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018. The hurt was deep and Aboriginal people used these world sporting events to their advantage.

As an Aboriginal Australian I felt for my people and understood the opportunity to use these events to highlight the shame.

As a proud Australian, I also embraced the spirit and opportunities the Games presented to the states, territories and our communities.

The Games promised inclusiveness to all Australians. This was highlighted during the Torch Relay when 13,400 torch-bearer’s participated in the relay world-wide.

On June 13th, news travelled that the torch relay would be passing through my small community of Ipswich. A group of us drove to a designated spot on the route and waited excitedly to see this blue and white torch made from stainless steel, aluminium, copper and brass, etched with boomerangs, the Sydney Opera House and the waters of the Pacific.

The crowds started to cheer as a runner dressed in white and blue slowly jogged towards another awaiting jogger. The noise got louder as we all immersed ourselves into the Olympic spirit. The passing of the flame was magical. The two torch-bearer’s shook hands, and the flame continued its journey towards Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane.

Even though the experience lasted around ten to twenty minutes, we all came together and did feel the Olympic spirit. A phrase that gets bandied around in the media. This (Olympic) spirit is a real thing. Strangers talking to each other, sharing photos, children running with the torch-bearer’s, parents yelling at them to come back.

This was my first taste of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Months later, I received a phone call and was asked if I would like a role as the Floor Manager for the Football (Soccer) at the Gabba in Brisbane for the Sydney Olympic Broadcasting Organisation (SOBO). Immediately I said yes.

I was so proud to see the International signal (a feed to all host broadcasters) letting them know the Games will start, had a major Indigenous influence with didgeridoo sounds, Aboriginal dancing, kangaroos and fire. This was produced very well and encapsulated our culture.

The Football draw competition started a day before the official Opening Ceremony. This was ideal as no matches were scheduled and I could watch the Opening ceremony. I was so overwhelmed to see Indigenous culture highlighted so many times during the program. And then, the final torch-bearer carried the flame. It was Cathy Freeman, the 400-meter world champion.

So much was said in the media, around water coolers and the general public about the expectations put on her. This turned out to be her Games.

Twenty years on, Cathy’s story is retold time and time again. But what about the expectations on her on that day on September 25th for a 400-meter Gold Medal. Australia was on her shoulders. The pressure was so immense that failure was not an option.

In a recent article with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Michael Gleeson, Freeman spoke about the race and was quoted, “I feel like I am protected. My ancestors were the first to walk this land. It [is] a really powerful force. Those other girls were always going to have to come up against my ancestors”.

This was a powerful message and emphasised the strength Freeman had to draw on with her culture and identity.

Dual Olympian and Aboriginal boxer Brad Hore, recalled the moment he walked into Stadium Australia with his fellow Australians. “It was crazy really. “You still think about it and get goosebumps. “You have 120,000 crazy Aussie fans, you could just hear the noise, the shaking and clapping, people stomping on the stadium.”

That night, Hore took a photo with Cathy and posted it recently on his Twitter account to mark the twentieth anniversary and stated, “I was sitting in the Olympic Village dining hall yelling my lungs out, people were looking at me strange, but to me it was more than a gold medal.

“I only now start to realise how big this was for her, you know, and how much pressure she had on her with her story and everything like that, you don’t really think about that until you know,” said Hore.

On the flip side, the Games weren’t kind to Hore. He was disqualified for failing to make his weight division due to a growth spurt.

“You know, I still thinking about it sometimes. And, you know, I think it’s only made me a strong person. And what I am today and how much dedication everything that I put in to make sure that I could make the next one and prove a point at a different way,” he said.

Sleepless nights leading up to the twentieth anniversary became a common occurrence for Hore. He compared it to post stress. He, along with past Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes recognised the highs and lows of their sport and the affect it can have short and long term.

Hore is now involved with the Australian Olympic Committee’s Indigenous advisory group, chaired by former sprinter and Deadly Choices Ambassador, Patrick Johnson and other past Olympians such as former basketballer Danny Morseu.

The 11-member group advises on cultural aspects of the Olympics for travelling Australian teams. This could be input for the Australian team’s athlete village, to advising and supporting first time Indigenous athletes on the world stage.

Aboriginal reporter for the Host Broadcaster the Seven network Djuro Sen, said the Games brought the country together like nothing he’s ever seen before. “Everywhere you went people were friendly, contrast that to now everyone is angry,” he said.

“The memories of seeing Cathy’s run, that time was special over the two-week period. “She wasn’t just a symbol to Aboriginal Australian’s; she was a symbol to the world. “She proved she can rise to the top with barriers in her way, she’s an inspiration and always will be,” said Sen.

The Games showed the good in this country. How we treated each other and the world’s visitors. Do we need an Olympic Games to be civilised to each other for two weeks out of the year?

Another highlight for me was during the Closing ceremony, when President Juan Antonio Samaranch said, “and to you our friends from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, we say you have helped to write a glorious chapter in the history of Australia.”

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