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Opinion

20 years on: What it was like to be there when Cathy won

Cathy Freeman’s 400-metre gold was an unforgettable moment of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. (Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Roar Guru
25th September, 2020
9

If you google the capacity for Stadium Australia, it says that during the Olympics the stadium had a capacity of around 110,000 plus change.

On the 25th of September 2000, your Google machine will tell you that 112,524 people were at Stadium Australia. Yet, approximately 25 million and counting insist they were at the stadium on the night of the 25th of September.

Google is therefore lying. Naughty Google.

I, however, was one of the people there that night. I was 13 and with my family. And if I’m completely honest, we were there kind of by mistake. We did not initially intend to be at the stadium for Cathy Freeman’s race. It was an accident.

In 1999 my solid middle-class parents were astute enough – like many others – to realise that the stars don’t align often to be able to take your family to an Olympics at home, and create the myriad of happy memories that accompany going. Overseas family holidays were still a luxury, not the norm in 2000 – and an overseas Olympics trip was out of the question. This was the one chance and they weren’t going to waste it. You might remember it was a ballot system for the tickets (as it still is now).

Dad was a largely pessimistic person when it came to things like luck and chance, but nor was he setting his heart on splashing out for good seats on one or two marquee events. He didn’t care what we saw at the Olympics, nor where we were sitting just so long as we were there. Knowing that he would be refunded for any unsuccessful ticket, he went nuts in applying for events. Tickets for the group stage of handball (honestly, how many people knew what handball was before Sydney?), badminton, ping pong, hockey, basketball, wrestling, fencing, water polo, swimming, weightlifting, football pool games… he applied for them all.

When it came to athletics, we looked at the program and it was out intent to go for the Hail Mary pass for the 100 metres, and another night and hope we got lucky and got one. We weren’t aiming for the fancy seats, they just weren’t in our price range, nor were we aiming for heat sessions either. We applied for the category D seats (I think there was even a category E – the poor sods sitting right the top of the now demolished uncovered wings). We knew the ballot would be intense for the 400 metres, so we ignored it and focused on another night.

Or so we thought.

Olympic flag

(Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

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My old man saw the 25th of September. He was an avid fan of Haile Gebrselassie (not sure why, my father was not remotely a runner). He loved Michael Johnson. He saw that on that night they’d be running, and they would be part of a eight final evening: an unprecedented figure in an Olympic athletics program (110 metres hurdles, 400 metres men’s, 10000 metres men’s, men’s triple jump, men’s discus, women’s 800 metres, women’s 5000 metres and women’s pole vault for the first time).

What a night. If you couldn’t get seats to the 100 metres races or to Cathy, then this was still a plum consolation prize, and considering the average Aussie didn’t know too much about athletics, we stood a fighting chance. This would be a great Plan B. Into the ballot we went.

Except dad was wrong. It was a nine-final program that night. In his zeal in wanting to secure a seat for the 400 metres men’s and the 10,000 metres men’s, he simply did not see that the 400 metres women’s was also to be run that night. His heart sank. He put in for the two most gunned for nights on the program. He sulked.

Quick side bar: there has not been a busier night in Olympic athletics before or since. Nine gold medals were awarded in one night.

Ballot results came back a few months later. We missed out on the swimming and the 100 metres sprints, but we weren’t surprised there. A mate’s auntie worked at SOCOG and she told us over a BBQ in early 2000 that approximately 400,000 ballot nominations came in for night one at the swimming alone for a 15,000 seat venue. I couldn’t blame people for having a crack. If you wanted to see an Australian win, then night one at the swimming was the night. It was Ian Thorpe’s birthright to win that race.

We got tickets for unhealthy volumes of handball and badminton (no way could you spin a semi-final ticket as exciting to a 13-year-old who never once even held a racket), some non-Australian hockey games, football, water polo, basketball… and the 25th of September night at the athletics! Unreal.

Something like 500,000 people applied for the C and D category tickets for that night. Luck doesn’t describe it. Even if we didn’t go to the athletics, we were seeing a lot of stuff. It turns out that dad was so comprehensive in his nominations we even got some double bookings. I’ll point out that very little of what I saw at the Olympics featured Australia. Dad just didn’t want to leave it to chance. We knew we’d stand a better shot watching stuff without Australia. But as luck would have it, we’d see Cathy Freeman!

Cathy Freeman

(Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)

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Fast forward to that day. We spent most of the Olympics at my nan’s house in Sydney (we are from the country), and I’ll confess that while the family would be watching the around-the-clock coverage of the Olympics on Channel Seven, my brother and I would spend the morning watching the around-the-clock coverage of The Simpsons on Fox 8. Does anyone remember that? Fox 8 ran a Simpsons marathon, and since it was only just 2000, it meant that it was only the golden-era episodes on the telly. They were smashing 30-odd episodes a day. Around-the-clock Simpsons plus around-the-clock Olympics. What a time to be alive. There were times I had to be cajoled onto the bus to the Olympics.

Anyway, in the afternoon we were on one of the special route buses to Homebush. Normally a bus ride is a largely forgettable endeavour. Not that day. I have to admit my memories are slightly hazy, but I’m sure the beach volleyball final was on and somehow Australia’s Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst won gold. The bus broke out a spontaneous “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chant (a chant I’ve since come to despise, but not at that age). Bedlam. Bus driver let out a couple of honks. However, it could also have been some other Aussie winning bronze in something else. Either way, the recollection of the spontaneous cheering is accurate.

We arrived at the complex and began the walk to the stadium. It was only a few years ago when I was cycling around there did I realise that the buses dropped people off a long way from the main Olympic area at Homebush. Nowadays the buses are parked out the front of the Novotel. I can’t believe I never complained, or anyone else. It’s a pretty Sydney thing to complain about the public transport being a mile from the arena, or maybe it was because we’d been there a few times over the past week I just stopped caring.

We all have vivid memories of some random things at the games. Mine is of the big temporary McDonalds that was built just up the road from the Novotel in a park, kind of diagonally across from the swimming stadium. That was an early dinner. That was awesome.

Then it was off to the stadium. For those who weren’t alive or just can’t remember, it is absolutely impossible to describe how imposing the stadium was when the two uncovered wings were still on it. It’s a big stadium now, but it was gobsmackingly large with the wings on. It made you feel absolutely tiny. It may be a rubbish place to watch footy (all codes), and horrific for cricket, but my word it was one hell of an Olympic stadium. I’ve been to the Bird’s Nest in Beijing – itself a remarkable structure – but it doesn’t come close to the Olympic configuration of Stadium Australia for sheer scale.

For category D tickets, we got lucky. We were high up on the back straight side of the stadium, but not too high either. Eyes and corrective lenses were all that were needed. If we bent our necks enough we could just make out the Olympic flame to one side (again, those wings were truly massive). There were plenty of rows behind us still. Good luck to them I thought.

My memories of the night are hazy in that I can’t remember the exact order of events. But I remember the tension. I remember as other activities were ticked off the program people were getting more and more antsy and jittery. I recall a few 400 metres hurdles semis being ticked off early in the night.

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I also recall – and consulted a program to make sure my memory wasn’t tricking me – that Tatiana Grigorieva was beginning an unprecedented run for the podium in the pole vault. That got the crowd fired right up. In hindsight she was the perfect undercard to the main event for the night. She was on her way to silver (although it wasn’t confirmed yet, but you knew it was coming). Out Cathy came. A massive cheer when her name was called out. That broke the tension temporarily.

I’ll never forget the silence before the starters gun. It’s a shame Sid Waddell never commentated athletics – oh what he would have said of that silence. He once said during darts that the atmosphere was so tense that if Elvis was to walk in with a packet of chips, you could hear the vinegar sizzle. It really was like that. Those brief seconds of total silence between “take your marks” and the gun. I’ll never really know what it was like watching on TV, but I’ve always imagined the local police station answering the phone saying “sorry, you’ve dialled 001” just so they wouldn’t miss the race.

The gun went off. My dad was one of the many thousands who tried (and obviously failed) to capture that moment on camera. How he possibly thought he’d capture that on 100ISO film with a crappy auto camera a mile away from the starting blocks is a mystery. Anyway…

It was my first time watching athletics live. You don’t appreciate how fast they are on TV. You need to be there to see it. Watching her in the back straight was intense. For all of the faults of Stadium Australia for watching other sports, the upper tiers felt like you were going to fall onto lane four on each straight.

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Coming around the final bend, it was already deafening. I’ve watched it dozens of times on YouTube since then and the sound coming through the speakers doesn’t come close to the sound there. You couldn’t hear yourself think, although you weren’t thinking anyway. You were just one of the other 112,000 screaming “Go! Go! GO!” as if Freeman was your bet on the Cup. And then as she powered through those final 20 metres you knew it was party time. People were just readying themselves for the final roar when crossing the line. Cue the celebrations. Total strangers hugging and crying with each other. Random strangers just locked in a big group hug. Seats getting thumped by jumping feet. Security guards forgot their role that night – I saw a few jump into the group photos by the cheering crowds. And rightly so. They shouldn’t miss out on the celebrations. This was our win.

The Australian flag

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Poor Jonathan Edwards. Unless you were in the immediate row right next to the sand pit, he just didn’t get any attention. One of the greatest triple jumpers crowned his career with Olympic gold in front of 112,000 people who just didn’t give two figs. It was Cathy’s time. The lap of honour had begun. It was absolutely party time in the stadium. The buzz just didn’t go away.

The night in many ways played out like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Caesar gets killed off early in the play and then the remaining three acts of the play are about the politicking and the new leadership of Rome in his place. It was the same that night. Cathy had won. Tatiana Grigorieva was on her way to winning silver. Everything else was largely irrelevant. And it’s okay to think that.

However, if you followed athletics, the greatest night in Olympic athletics really had just begun. Michael Johnson would confirm his absolute domination of the 400 metres and win in a canter. Again, the difference between him live and on TV is stark. That epileptic upright duck routine of his was phenomenal to watch live. Wow.

A Cuban chap called Ariel Garcia won the 110 metres hurdles. One thing I remember was how short their anthem was. You basically stand up and then sit down just as quickly. I presume they just sang “viva Fidel” a couple of times.

The diminutive Gabriela Szabo won the 5000 metres. Maria Mutola won the 800 metres. And as if you just couldn’t get enough of the night, we were treated to the greatest Olympic 10,000 metres ever run. Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie went tit for tat for 9998 of those metres, and it was only in the last few strides that the little master overtook Tergat. Grigorieva won silver to just really send the crowd into overdrive. Lost in all that, a Lithuanian the size of a Kelvinator won the discus.

Yes, while we all rightly remember Cathy Freeman’s win that night, this truly was one of the greatest nights athletics had ever seen. Nine gold medals, but it was also a confirmation of greatness for so many absolute greats of the discipline at the time. Szabo, Mutola, Freeman, Johnson, Edwards, Gebrselassie and Stacy Dragila (the women’s pole vault) were all utterly dominant in their discipline between Atlanta and Sydney (Johnson and Gebrselassie a lot longer than that). Garcia and the Lithuanian discus thrower were expected to win, and did. Some 112,000 saw the absolute elite in their fields triumph and win gold. No one had a bad day. No tripping over a hurdle, no spike on the plasticine, no false start costing you a gold. Perfection. I would have to do some extensive research on the subject, but I’d be prepared to wager it was the only time when all nine gold medallists were also the pre-contest favourites.

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Truth be told, I have absolutely no memory of the podium ceremony for Freeman and anthem being sung. Even after watching it on YouTube, I still can’t recall any of it… it was 20 years ago after all! It looked pretty good. I wish I could remember a bit of it. Maybe I was in the food line.

But I do remember the bus ride home. I remember walking from the stadium to the bus – the whole precinct was buzzing. It would have been pretty close to 11pm, probably later, but the stadium was the last arena open, and there were thousands outside that had zero intention on leaving the precinct. Cheering, hugging, jumping, chanting… everything. The bus ride was epic. Just repeated shouts of Land Down Under by some absolutely gassed lads in the back of the bus. Not singing. Shouting. Sweet, sweet, drunk shouting… a pleasure I would enjoy in 2010 when the Dragons won the grand final and on the bus drunk belting “when the Saints go marching in” all the way home. Oh, sweet, sweet drunk talk! But on the 25th of September (although now the 26th by that stage), even my generally restrained mother was belting it out – a sight I’ve not seen since.

I’ve been to Stadium Australia many, many times since and seen some big, big events, and fortunately, the biggest of them all. I understand the criticism people throw towards the stadium. It’s not particularly great to watch footy at, and it’s downright rubbish to watch the cricket at (thank heavens that experiment is over). But even if it was just a bog standard home-and-away game of NRL, I still get goosebumps when I go… it always triggers memories of the 25th of September.

What a night.