“The best Olympic Games ever”: moments that made the 2000 Sydney Olympics

By Jared Richards 23 August 2016
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We look back at why the 2000 Sydney Olympics are remembered so fondly.

AT THE SYDNEY Olympic Closing Ceremony, the then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch made a massive call. These were “the best Olympic Games ever”.

Estimated to have cost $6.6 billion, the Games are remembered for reaching new heights of athleticism, dazzling ceremonies, as well as creating a real sense of community spirit. These are six moments that made the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games so great – with a slight bias to Aussie’s bringing home the gold.

1. Eric the Eel’s record breaking swim

Before the Sydney Olympics, Eric Moussambani had never swam in an Olympic-sized pool.

A wildcard entry, ‘Eric the Eel’ – his nickname in the press – competed in the 100m freestyle event representing the small Central African country of Equatorial Guinea. He began swimming eight months prior to the games, practicing in a 12m swimming pool.

Competing against swimmers in aerodynamic body suits in the Sydney heats, Eric swam in budgie smugglers. Eric finished at a time of 1 minute 52.72 seconds, more than a minute after Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband’s winning time of 48.64 seconds. While one of the Olympic’s slowest swimmers, the spirit in the room was of celebration as Eric’s efforts broke the national Equatorial Guinea record, cheered on by both the crowds and fellow Olympians alike.

Eric is now the coach of the national Equatorial Guinea swimming team.

2. The Opening Ceremony

Both a celebration of Australian culture and a warm welcome to our country, Sydney’s Opening Ceremony is summed up best by artist Ken Done’s banner that greeted the world with one word; “G’day”.

The four-hour spectacle saw 12,687 people perform and parade in a journey through Australia’s history and landscape, followed a then 13-year-old Nikki Webster. The festival began with a tribute to Banjo Paterson, featuring 120 Driza-bone wearing stock men riding horses across the Olympic stadium.

Other highlights include “the Awakening” – a dance spanning Indigenous history and the Dreaming that featured over 2500 Indigenous performers – and the Tin Symphony, a number that memorably ended with an eclectic parade of suburban lawn mowers that formed the Olympic Rings.

One moment that wowed amongst the wonder was an understated show of Olympic spirit. During the parade of nations, North and South Korea marched under a unified flag, a historic first for the games.

The iconic image of the Opening Ceremony belongs, however, to Cathy Freeman when she lit the Olympic cauldron, climbing floating stairs as a wall of water parted before her.  The cauldron then rose to the top of the stadium, although infamously a technical snag – one of the few of the games – left it suspended in mid-air for a few minutes.

3. Australia’s stunning swims

Although swimming is one of Australia’s strongest sports, our Olympic swimmers went the extra mile at Sydney to win 18 medals.

In 2000, Ian Thorpe won three gold and two silver medals, the highest achiever of any Olympian at the games. He also smashed the 400 m freestyle with a time of 3.40.59, earning a world record at the age of 17 and the nickname Thorpedo.

During the games, competition with the United States amped up both in and outside of the pool. Before the 4 x 100m men’s relay final, US swimmer Gary Hall Jnr boasted that his team would smash Australia “like guitars”. It was a phrase he no doubt came to regret when Ian Thorpe overtook Gary to take out gold – out of the pool, the Australian relay team celebrated with air guitars in hand.

Other heroes include (but aren’t limited to) Susie O’Neill, whose silver-winning stroke in the 200 metres proved why she’s better known as Madame Butterfly; Leisel Jones, who at 15 was the Sydney Games youngest medal-winning Olympian; Grant Hackett, who won gold in the 1500 m freestyle; and Kieran Perkins, who shadowed Hackett in the 1500 m freestyle for silver.

4. Jane Saville’s disqualification

One hundred metres out from walking across the finish line first, Australian race walker Jane Saville was disqualified from the 20km race. With the world watching, Jane burst into tears.

The rules of race walking are incredibly strict; athletes must always keep a foot on the ground at all times, and the supporting leg cannot be raised until the raised leg surpasses it, resulting in an Olympic sport that slightly resembles Kath Day Knight and Kel Knight on their morning walking route.

Jane received two warnings before her final disqualification. Her pure heartbreak was a reminder that each Olympian pours themselves solely into their event, dedicating all their time for a chance to win for their country.

Thankfully, Jane’s Olympic story didn’t end there. She went on to win bronze in the 20km race at the 2004 Athens Games.

5. A volunteer spirit

The Sydney Olympics are celebrated as a rare event; a Games where (almost) nothing went wrong. Credit where credits due, the games held a special parade to thank their 46,967 volunteers who helped shuffle and guide visitors throughout the city. Decked out in white brim hats and colourful yellow and aqua blue polo shirts, Sydney’s volunteers were the driving force of the friendly air of community that this global, multi-million visitor event managed to pull off.

6. Cathy Freeman’s spectacular win

There were high expectations for Cathy Freeman. Winning silver in the 400 m track at the 1996 Olympic Games, she was now aiming for gold at Sydney. After lighting the Olympic flame at the Opening Ceremony, Cathy had the world watching.

The race was billed as Cathy’s chance to snatch gold from French rival Marie-José Pérec, who won gold in 1996. Unfortunately, citing harassment from an overtly invested public, Marie left Sydney before the race.

At a time of 49.11 seconds, Cathy took out gold to a capacity crowd. Elated, she ran a victory lap carrying two flags: the Australian and Aboriginal. After Nova Peris, who won gold as part of the Hockeyroos team in 1996, Cathy Freeman is Australia’s second Aboriginal Olympic medal winner.