7 February, 2021
Olympic colours on the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Olympic colours on the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Millennium Olympic Games or the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXVII Olympiad and commonly known as Sydney 2000 were held from September 15 to October 1, 2000 in Sydney, Australia. It was the second time the Summer Olympics were held in the Southern Hemisphere and in Australia, the first being Melbourne 1956.

Cathy Freeman, a proud indigenous Australian athlete, lit the Olympic Cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 2000, a Games that celebrated not only sports achievements but also unity, forgiveness, resilience and innovation. The Sydney 2000 significantly used its platform to unite, heal and energize the country and the rest of the world. Cathy, wearing a full green and white bodysuit, won a sensational gold in 400m in front of an ecstatic crowd of spectators. The iconic moment is seen by many as a starting point for Australia’s national reconciliation.

Sydney won the right to host the Games over Beijing, Berlin, Istanbul and Manchester in four rounds of voting, at the 101st IOC Session in Monte Carlo, Monaco in 1993. The Australian city of Melbourne had lost out to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics four years earlier.

The Games received universal acclaim, with the organization, volunteers, sportsmanship and Australian public being lauded in the international media. These were the final Olympic Games of the IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch. These were also the second Olympic Games to be held in spring and is to date the most recent games not to be held in its more traditional July or August summer slot. Teams from 199 countries participated.

The final medal tally was led by the United States, followed by Russia and China with host Australia at fourth place overall. Several World and Olympic records were broken during the games. With little or no controversies, the games were deemed generally successful with the rising standard of competition amongst nations across the world.

The Green Games

Sydney’s venues certainly helped to keep that dream alive. The Olympic Park, the most prominent post-Games landmark, was created by redeveloping industrial wasteland. Despite a difficult period after the Games, the Park is now known for its thriving cluster of world-class sports, entertainment and business facilities. Hosting 230 businesses, the Park welcomes a daily community of some 21,600 people and more than 14 million visitors every year.

The Games also saw the creation of new environmentally responsible facilities across Sydney and widespread conservation efforts as part of Sydney’s legacy. Every aspect of the venues and Olympic Village was built with environmentally responsible materials, while the Games were used to transform many surrounding areas of the city. Some 160 hectares of waterways were cleaned and 180 hectares of industrial wasteland were reclaimed. Renewable energy was also used extensively across the Park and Olympic Village.

Apart from its social and inclusive power, the Games helped catalyze the Sydney economy, positioning the city and country as a major tourist and business hub. It was the first time that a host city had used the Olympic Games to facilitate longer-term business opportunities. A newly created government-funded programme, Business Club Australia, was a networking initiative to leverage the Olympic spotlight and strike new trade and investment deals.

Connecting with society was another vital element of the Sydney Olympic Games. Some 40,000 volunteers became a “Games Force”, and had their names preserved on volunteer poles in Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. The friendships, connections, and social spirit remain alive and well. And as the world prepares for Tokyo 2020, a Games to be held in extraordinarily complex circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney’s legacy will be a reminder that the most important aspect of the Games is indeed its spirit.

Chronological Summary of Sydney 2000

September 15: The opening ceremony began with a tribute to the Australian pastoral heritage of the Australian stockmen and the importance of the stock horse in Australia’s heritage. At the cracking of Jefferys’ stock whip, a further 120 riders entered the stadium, their stock horses performing intricate steps, including forming the five Olympic Rings, to a special Olympics version of the theme, which Bruce Rowland had previously composed for the 1982 film The Man from Snowy River.

The Australian National Anthem was sung, the first verse by Human Nature and the second by Julie Anthony. The ceremony continued, showing many aspects of the land and its people: the affinity of the mainly coastal-dwelling Australians with the sea that surrounds the “Island Continent.” The indigenous occupation of the land, the coming of the First Fleet, the continued immigration from many nations and the rural industry on which the economy of the nation was built, including a display representing the harshness of rural life based on the paintings of Sir Sidney Nolan. Two memorable scenes were the representation of the “Heart” of the country by 200 Aboriginal women from Central Australia who danced up “the mighty spirit of God to protect the Games” and the overwhelmingly noisy representation of the construction industry by hundreds of tap-dancing teenagers.

A record 199 nations entered the stadium, with a record 80 of them winning at least one medal. The only missing IOC member was Afghanistan, who was banned due to the extremist rule of the Taliban’s oppression of women and its prohibition of sports. Four athletes from East Timor also marched in the parade of nations as Individual Olympic Athletes and marched directly before the Host country. They were allowed to compete under the Olympic Flag with country code IOA.

The Governor-General, Sir William Deane, opened the games. The Olympic Flag was carried around the arena by eight former Australian Olympic champions: Bill Roycroft, Murray Rose, Liane Tooth, Gillian Rolton, Marjorie Jackson, Lorraine Crapp, Michael Wenden and Nick Green. The Olympic Hymn was sung in Greek. Following this, Tina Arena sang a purpose-written pop song, The Flame.

The opening ceremony concluded with the lighting of the Olympic Flame, which was brought into the stadium by former Australian Olympic champion Herb Elliott. Then, celebrating 100 years of women’s participation in the Olympic Games, former Australian women Olympic medalists Betty Cuthbert and Raelene Boyle, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King brought the torch through the stadium, handing it over to Cathy Freeman, who lit the flame in the cauldron within a circle of fire. The ceremony concluded with a spectacular fireworks display.

September 16: The first medals of the Games were awarded in the women’s 10m air rifle, which was won by Nancy Johnson of the United States. The Triathlon made its Olympic debut with the women’s race. Set in the surroundings of the Sydney Opera House, Brigitte McMahon representing Switzerland swam, cycled and ran to the first gold medal in the sport.

The Australian swimmers enjoyed massive support from an enthusiastic home crowd. An inside account of the days when teenager Ian Thorpe and his team-mates were motivated by an enormous wave of support to produce a series of memorable performances. The first star of the Games was 17-year-old Australian Ian Thorpe.

Right from the start, the 17,500 spectators chanted “Thorpey, Thorpey, Thorpey!” Wearing a full bodysuit, Ian Thorpe began by dominating the final of the 400m freestyle from start to finish. Already the world record-holder over this distance, the swimmer made full use of his home advantage. He won amidst the deafening cheers of the crowd, setting a new world record of 3.40:59.

But the atmosphere was about to get even more charged on this memorable day! The US team had never been beaten in the 4x100m freestyle relay since its inclusion on the programme in 1964 in Tokyo, making a total of seven consecutive victories, as the 4x100m was not on the programme of the Games in 1976 or 1980. Ian Thorpe swam the final leg and managed to secure a new world record of 3.13.67.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch had to leave for home, as his wife Bibi Salisachs was severely ill. Upon arrival, his wife had already died and he returned four days later. The Olympic flag was flown at half-staff during the period as a sign of respect to Samaranch’s wife.

September 17: Canadian Simon Whitfield sprinted away in the last 100m of the men’s triathlon, becoming the inaugural winner in the event. On the cycling track, Robert Bartko beat fellow German Jens Lehmann in the individual pursuit, setting a new Olympic Record. Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel set a world record in the semi-finals the same event for women.

In the swimming pool, American Tom Dolan beat the world record in 400m medley, successfully defending the title he won in Atlanta 1996. Dutch woman Inge de Bruijn also clocked a new world record, beating her own time in the 100m butterfly final.

September 18: The main event for the Australians on the fourth day of the Games was 200m freestyle. Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband broke the world record and finished ahead of Thorpe by half a second.

China won the gold medal in the men’s team all-around gymnastics competition, after being the runner-up in the previous two Olympics. The other medals were taken by Ukraine and Russia, respectively. Zijlaard-van Moorsel lived up to the expectations set by her world record in cycling in the semis by winning the gold medal.

September 19: Thorpe was once again the star for the final of the 4x200m freestyle relay, an event the Australians had won just once before, at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. The Australians were imperious, winning with a time of 7:07.05, beating the previous world record.

September 21: Controversy erupted at the Women’s Gymnastics All-Around final, when gymnast after gymnast fell on the vault. Some gymnasts were physically injured, and all were shaken. Finally, it was determined that the vault horse had been set 5 cm too low – enough of a difference to throw off the impeccable timing of many of these world-class athletes.

While athletes were allowed to vault again, the remedy did not fully repair injuries and shaken confidence. The medals were eventually all won by Romanian gymnasts, with Andreea Raducan becoming the first athlete from her country to win the title since Nadia Comaneci in 1976. Teammates Simona Amanar and Maria Olaru took silver and bronze, respectively. This result also marked the first sweep of the event since the Soviet Union’s in 1960.

September 23: By rowing in the winning coxless four, Steve Redgrave of Great Britain became a member of a select group who had won gold medals at five consecutive Olympics. The swimming 4x100m medley relay of B.J. Bedford, Megan Quann, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres became the first women’s relay under 4-minutes, swimming 3:58 and setting a world record, claiming the gold medal for the United States.

September 24: Rulon Gardner, never an NCAA champion or a world medalist, beat Alexander Karelin of Russia to win gold in the super heavyweight class, Greco-Roman wrestling. Karelin had won gold in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta. Before this fight he had never lost in international competition, had been unbeaten in all competitions in 13 years, and had not surrendered a point in a decade.

September 25: Australian Cathy Freeman won 400m final in front of a jubilant Sydney crowd at the Olympic Stadium, ahead of Lorraine Graham of Jamaica and Katharine Merry of Great Britain. Freeman’s win made her the first competitor in Olympic Games history to light the Olympic Flame and win a Gold Medal. The attendance at the stadium was 112,524 – the largest attendance for any sport in Olympic Games history.

Before her legendary race in Sydney, Catherine Freeman was everywhere. In newspapers, on the walls of skyscrapers, adored by a nation who didn’t doubt for a single second that she would triumph in the 400m final, at 8.10 p.m. on the dot. Her status as a national icon was further strengthened by her appearance as the last torchbearer at the end of the Opening Ceremony, lighting the Olympic cauldron amidst a cascade of fire and water.

The Australian reigning two-time world champion (1997 and 1999) easily won her race in 51.63. The following day in the second round, to the cheers of the crowd who only had eyes for her, and who packed out the stands in the Homebush Bay Olympic Stadium each day, Freeman dominated her race with a time of 50.31. She then stepped up the pace in the semi-final, crossing the finish line first in 50.01.

What follows next is the stuff of Olympic Games legend. Her last lap of the track in the final was accompanied by voices coming together in a deafening din, combined with the incessant crackles of camera flashes. Freeman won in a time of 49.11 to the intense roar of the crowd, then seemed to collapse on the track under the weight of the avalanche of emotions coming from the stands. She gave Australia its 100th Olympic medal, and symbolized the unity of her country in magnificent fashion.

In a men’s basketball pool match between the United States and France, the USA’s Vince Carter made one of the most famous dunks in basketball history. After getting the ball off a steal, the 6’6”/1.98 m Carter drove to the basket, with 7’2”/2.18 m centre Frédéric Weis in his way. Carter jumped, spread his legs in midair, scraped Weis’ head on the way up, and dunked. The French media dubbed the feat le dunk de la mort (“the dunk of death”).

September 28: Susanthika Jayasinghe won the Olympic silver medal for 200m at the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games, to become the second Sri Lankan to win an Olympic medal and the first Asian to win an Olympic medal in a sprint event. She is known as the Asian Black Mare.

September 30: Cameroon won a historic gold medal over Spain in the Men’s Olympic Football Final at the Olympic Stadium. The game went to a penalty shootout, which was won by Cameroon 5–3.

October 1: The last event of the games was the Men’ Marathon, contested on a course that started in North Sydney. The event was won by Ethiopian Gezahegne Abera, with Kenyan Erick Wainaina second, and Tesfaye Tola, also of Ethiopia, third. It was the first time since the 1968 Olympics that an Ethiopian won the gold medal in this event.

The closing ceremony commenced with Christine Anu performing her version of the Warumpi Band’s song “My Island Home,” with several Aboriginal dancers atop the Geodome Stage in the middle of the stadium, around which several hundred umbrella and lampbox kids created an image of Aboriginal dreamtime. The Geodome Stage was used throughout the ceremony, which was a flat stage mechanically raised into the shape of a Geode. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch declared at the Closing Ceremony, “I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever.”

The Olympic Hymn was sung by soprano Yvonne Kenny. The ceremony also featured leading performing artists. The Games were then handed over to their modern birthplace Athens, which succeeded Sydney as the summer Olympic host city. Two Greek flags were raised; one to honour the birthplace of the Olympics, and the other to honour Athens.

The ceremony concluded with a huge fireworks display on Sydney Harbour, which itself concluded with a very low flyover of Stadium Australia by an RAAF F-111C, performing a dump-and-burn manoeuvre synchronized with the extinction of the Olympic Flame. This created the appearance of the flame being carried away into the sky, flying in a northeasterly direction out across Sydney Harbour and ultimately towards Athens in a symbolic handover.

The Games in Sydney were a great success, and ended in this blaze of euphoria. One last song, probably the most famous in Australian culture, “Waltzing Matilda”, was played on the acoustic guitar by Slim Dusty and sung by the whole Stadium, and then a giant fireworks display ended the festivities. “Bye Bye Sydney 2000, Welcome to Athens 2004”.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)