I was born in Tasmania in 1990 — in between the Seoul Olympics in ’88 and Barcelona in ’92.
I spent my childhood anticipating the Games that would come to Sydney in the year 2000 — there was magic to be found in the spectacle of such a big sporting event.
And there was something about the Olympic flame that captured my imagination.
I watched its journey every day on the news, and saw people like me on the TV — kids from all over Australia celebrating and waving at the flame and the cameras as they passed by on the long road to Homebush.
It was a typically cold and foggy winter’s morning when the torch relay came to my hometown, Launceston.
It hitched a ride on ‘the world’s longest single span chair-lift’ through the Cataract Gorge at the bottom of my street.
It came right up my little street, and right past my house.
I waved along like all those other grinning kids on telly; the eyes of the world watching us.
It left a huge impression on me: the Olympic Games had actually come to me.
From Athens to Uluru
The Olympic flame was lit by the rays of the sun in Olympia, Greece, on May 10, 2000.
It made its way to Athens before beginning its four-month journey to Sydney.
It was the 15th time an Olympic torch relay had taken place, and it was the longest ever — the flame would travel some 36,000 kilometres.
Organisers had been planning for its arrival for years. They wanted to make a statement.
So instead of rolling out the red carpet, they decided to run in red dirt.
The flame touched down at Uluru on the morning of June 8, to begin its 100-day journey.
It was transferred to the torch and passed from governor-general Sir William Dean to the Mutitjulu elders and then into the hands of Nova Peris.
Peris, Australia’s first Indigenous gold medallist, had the job of being the first torchbearer on Australian soil.
“As soon as I put my hand on it the flame went out — the flame is never meant to go out,” she recalls.
By the end of her run around the rock, the flame had gone out three times.
“I truly believe that it was a sign of our ancestors — they wanted to have their presence heard and felt and visually present for the whole world to see,” Peris says.
Planning the pilgrimage
The route for the relay passed within an hour’s drive of 85 per cent of Australian households
As it snaked its way across the country, it began to tell the story of Australia and its people.
Poet Mark O’Connor was selected to capture all aspects of the Sydney Olympics in verse, and he followed the flame around the continent in his van.
“In each place the torch went though, it was world recognition,” he says.
“Country people tend to feel neglected and to them, the relay was a celebration of rural Australia.”
Wherever the torch went, it was met by a media circus.
“There was never any accommodation where the torch was. No matter how remote the area,” O’Connor says.
“It would be the one day of the year where the town had no accommodation and a traffic jam.”
More than 11,000 Australians were nominated as torch bearers, so they could represent their communities.
“I think what caught the imagination was the celebration of locality, the vastness of distance and to showcase the diversity of Australians,” O’Connor says.
A real mix of transport carried the torch flame. It hopped on a prawn trawler, a camel, a surf boat, a pearl lugger, the Indian Pacific train, the Spirit of Tasmania, the Puffing Billy, a V8 racing car, and a Sydney Harbour ferry-boat.
And the chair lift in Launceston.
The big secret
The Olympic Games seem to have almost as many rules and rituals as the Vatican.
One of the most important rituals is the lighting of the cauldron — the culmination of the torch relay — to signify the beginning of the Games.
Barcelona set a high bar in 1992 when Antonio Rebello, a Spanish Paralympic archer, sent a burning arrow across the stadium and into the cauldron.
In Atlanta in 1996 it was Muhammad Ali who had the honour. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, visibly shaking as he lit the flame.
“Muhammad Ali embodied the greatest that humanity has to offer in lighting the flame. And to a certain extent, that set the standard for Games to follow,” Olympic historian Philip Barker says.
“Ever since, they’ve tried to find some way of lighting the torch that offers the symbolism of the Olympic movement.”
Ali seemed to present Sydney with an impossible act to follow.
The pressure was on Australia to think about a unique spectacle for the lighting of the cauldron, an act that would embody the nation’s aspirations for the new millennium.
Theories and clues abounded about who would take to the stand in Sydney on September 15.
There’s no rule that the cauldron needs to be lit by an Olympian — in Melbourne in 1956 the honour had gone to a junior runner, a young fella called Ron Clarke.
“There was even speculation that the great cricketer Sir Donald Bradman might light the torch, as he was 92 at the time,” Barker says.
“There was also a thought that Dawn Fraser, the great swimmer, might light it. And other people had Andrew Gaze.”
The two people responsible for making this important decision were Michael Knight, president of the Sydney Organising Committee, and John Coates, the head of the Australian Olympic Committee.
They both had the same person in mind.
“I always wanted Cathy Freeman,” Coates says.
“I took her and her husband out for dinner and said to her, ‘You only do this if it’s not going to prejudice what your main purpose in these Games is, and that is to win the 400 meters’.
“And she just turned and looked at me and said, ‘John, I love pressure. That’s when I perform at my best’.”
It was Knight’s idea that as the Games were celebrating a century of women’s participation, the final torchbearers should all be women.
Symbolism and ceremonies
The final lap of the torch gave the crowd of 110,000 an opportunity to salute six Australians women who had won 15 gold medals between them.
Betty Cuthbert, Raelene Boyle, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King took their lap of honour on the ground inside the stadium.
The final torchbearer was Freeman.
In the spectacular final moments, before she lit the cauldron, she bent down and ignited a circular ring of fire in a pool of water.
The ring of fire was attached to a hydraulic lift that was to rise out of the water above her and make its way up a conveyor belt to meet the cauldron to signal the start of the Games.
Freeman showed poise, standing in front of it for nearly four minutes as technicians scrambled to fix a glitch that could have made the whole spectacle go belly up.
Watching on, Peris remembered how the flame had gone out at Uluru.
“I think about when Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron and then it had a few malfunctions,” she says.
“I certainly think that the ancestral spirits of this nation wanted to be heard and felt and shown in a way that we will never forget.”
The flame, and its long journey to Homebush 20 years ago, is something I’ll never forget either.
At the turn of a new century, it revealed so much about Australia, and the hopes and ideals of the people who call it home.
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