Special Report: 20 Years On – How Sydney 2000 Enhanced The Image Of The Olympic Games As The Pinnacle Of World Sport
September 15, 2020
The Sydney Olympic Games is regarded as one of the best organised and most exciting sporting events of modern times. MICHAEL PIRRIE, media adviser with the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, provides an insider’s account of why the Sydney Games was so successful.
The Games insider explains why Sydney marked a major turning point for the Olympic Movement, with innovations in sports competition and organisation and that remain relevant in today’s highly uncertain corona pandemic times.
OLYMPIC MOVEMENT CELEBRATES SYDNEY’S ‘ONCE & FUTURE’ OLYMPIC GAMES
Twenty years ago Australia was staging the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games, beginning with an innovative and joyful Opening Ceremony that would set the stage for the Games, regarded by many as the best sporting event ever staged.
Ric Birch’s opening had the world literally at hello, from the moment his giant ‘G’day’ drop down was released from the ceiling inside the 113,000 capacity Olympic stadium, the biggest in Games history.
“What is really important to me was the spirit of the Games in Sydney,” said Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director.
Pioneering aerial choreography, flying performers and dramatic lighting transformed the stadium into the world’s biggest live theatre production, as an Aboriginal elder accompanied by a local schoolgirl led audiences on a journey of reconciliation, showcasing the indigenous culture and development of the island nation through soaring land and seascapes telling Australia’s story.
Its sequel, in which the ceremony’s cauldron lighting star becomes the sports star of the Games, would be even more compelling. The Olympic Movement, founded on the dreams of athletes, had returned to the original land of dreamtime.
A DREAM COMES TRUE
The Sydney games was a sports utopia with dream scenarios that could have been conjured from the imagination of a Steven Spielberg sports science-fiction script.
In the IOC’s Year of Women, with the Olympic Games in Australia and the host nation on a journey of reconciliation with its indigenous people, the Games would belong to an Aboriginal female athlete with her own dreams.
Sydney was Freeman’s dream and destiny. When Catherine Freeman won, every Australian took home gold. Her famous 400 metres victory bridged the country, stretching across the host city harbour like the iconic bridge itself, and from coast to coast across black and white Australia in a national celebration that united all colours, creeds, faiths, and backgrounds.
Rarely has a sporting event had such an impact.
“For me it was a dream come true; a dream that I had carried with me since I was a little girl,” Freeman said.
“If the Olympics is a symphony of sport in pursuit of perfection, Sydney’s was also a boom, crash opera.”
“Running for me was like breathing. I was born to run, and I had people around me who believed in me and in what I could do.”
HIGHER, FASTER, STRONGER
The late former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Birch’s uplifting ceremony the most beautiful and the Sydney Games the best ever, a view many shared. The influential London Times also agreed and said: “I invite you to suggest a more successful event anywhere in the peacetime history of mankind.”
Sydney’s glowing report card set the Games apart. The 2000 Olympics has become one of the most studied, scrutinised and celebrated major events of modern times.
THE PARTY OLYMPICS
While the Olympic Games produces great sport, Sydney produced a great party. This was a happy games with the lot. The venues had never seen such an audience, the sport so exciting or the city so inviting.
“What is really important to me was the spirit of the Games in Sydney,” said Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director.
“The party atmosphere, the multiple live sites throughout the city which was really bringing the Games to the people,” he said.
If the Olympics is a symphony of sport in pursuit of perfection, Sydney’s was also a boom, crash opera.
Olympic fans, friends, tourists, and strangers celebrated in city squares, streets and suburbs until the early hours. They partied at Live sites; on Central Station platforms; at Circular Quay ferry terminals; and in Darling Harbour bars. No-one wanted to leave or go home.
Some unsuspecting observers might have questioned whether Australia’s water supplies may have been spiked with a mysterious Olympic euphoria-inducing substance.
“Sydney produced a new template for the Games, based around sequential phases in planning of infrastructure and functional area development and integration of operations for venues, the DNA of the Olympics.”
Sydney’s fever pitch atmosphere also highlighted the importance of funding and training pathways for home teams to peak at Games time as the 2010 Vancouver and London 2012 Games also showed.
The party started early in the pool, when the Australian team, with new national swimming hero Ian Thorpe, narrowly overhauled the previously undefeated American Olympic team, with Gary Hall, in the 4×100 metres freestyle final, smashing records and guitars.
Those piercing sound levels in the Aquatics Centre were more like a jet taking off or a Kylie Minogue concert than a sporting event. Fans would have to wait for the closing ceremony to see the pop princess.
“For me, Sydney is really the first time the Games were brought to the people, out in the streets for them to enjoy and party,” Dubi said about Sydney, his first Summer Games.
Like the athletes, the organisers also had dreams.
We looked to the heavens as a US shuttle carried the Olympic torch to the International Space Station, praying the torch would survive the pressure of gravity forces at lift off.
Sydney was dressed up to party, with a giant installation of the rings on the Harbour Bridge, the first time Olympic symbols had been attached to a host city monument.
This provided an iconic Games backdrop for the Games, aligning Sydney with the Olympic Movement and sport, and led to similar treatments of the rings on other landmarks at future Games, including London’s Tower Bridge for the 2012 Olympics.
Like Sydney’s Opera House, the Games captured the imagination of the world, and sparked the biggest contest amongst major cities to host the Games. The bid cycle that followed Sydney included London, Paris, New York, Moscow, Madrid, Rio, and others, all hoping to emulate Sydney’s success.
NEW OLYMPIC BIBLE
Sydney produced a new template for the Games, based around sequential phases in planning of infrastructure and functional area development and integration of operations for venues, the DNA of the Olympics.
The new model for planning and operating Games venues enhanced the experience for athletes, officials, spectators, broadcasters and others, and formed the basis of the IOCs inaugural Transfer of Knowledge program, now essential for organising and bid committees.
“So for the organisation, the way we approach it with the various sequences and the overarching structure of Games organisation is still based on Sydney,” the Olympic Games Executive Director said.
“The first capitalisation on a Games to help the next Games was built in Sydney,” Dubi explained.
“It was a complete philosophical and managerial change.”
The forensic attention to detail by Australian Olympic Committee president and Sydney Games ringmaster, John Coates, on conditions for athletes from all participating nations was fundamental to Sydney’s success.
“A senior Sydney media executive called a meeting of editorial staff in the early stages of the Games and demanded to know why the Games was going so well.”
The focus by Coates (now the IOC senior member overseeing Tokyo’s preparations) on competition, training, and accommodation facilities along with transport and other key support services, was paramount.
This enabled the world’s best athletes to perform at their best in Sydney.
The athletes produced a plethora of world, Olympic, continental, national and individual records and iconic sporting moments and performances.
This created an electrifying atmosphere in the venues that radiated out to Live sites, parties and celebrations across the host city and nation, which defined Sydney, and enhanced the image of the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of world sport.
The landmark performances included Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselaisse’s epic gold medal victory, sprinting to the finish line after 25 gruelling laps around the track, and winning by a fraction of a second.
This was one of many electrifying performances by athletes from across the globe in what many believe may have been the best night of competition in Olympic history, known as Magic Monday, in front of almost 110,000 spectators, the biggest ever Olympic Games crowd. Other ‘Magic Monday’ medallists included USA’s Michael Johnson, and Jonathan Edwards and Denise Lewis from Great Britain, along with Australia’s Freeman.
As the Games got closer, a national obsession developed over Australia’s readiness to deliver hundreds of Olympic sporting and cultural events simultaneously across dozens of Games venues and locations in Sydney and around Australia, all dependent on the immediate resolution of every operational issue that might arise, with the whole world watching and Australia’s international reputation on the line.
Indeed, the international travel writer Bill Bryson observed that “it is literally not possible to name a catastrophic contingency, short of asteroid impact or nuclear attack, that hasn’t been mooted and exhaustively analysed in the nation’s press in the lead up to the Games.”
Too much attention had been focussed on the potential for things to go wrong, until a senior Sydney media executive called a meeting of editorial staff in the early stages of the Games and demanded to know why the Games was going so well.
CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS
Sydney’s unprecedented success was driven by intensive planning, integration and testing of operations and communications across all Games sites, systems, services and facilities, along with well rehearsed teams and dynamic leadership in Sydney’s Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Socog).
“This was a model for the Olympic Movement’s focus on legacy and sustainable community and environmental change linked to the Games, providing a template for the regeneration of east London through the London 2012 Games.”
This included CEO Sandy Holway, COO Jim Sloman, Communications Chief Milton Cockburn, and Sports Director Bob Elphinstone, who were all vital to Sydney’s success.
These, and other Sydney Games executives and staff – many of whom have since worked as Olympic and international sports and major events specialists, including Craig McLatchey, Simon Balderstone, Karen Webb, Neil Fergus, Di Henry, Anthony Scanlan, Jackie Brock-Doyle, David Higgins and others – highlighted the need for world class organising committees to deliver the Games.
The strong partnership the IOC’s Sydney Games team was supremely important.
This included Dr Jacques Rogge, who oversaw the IOC’s successful Games preparations and succeeded Samaranch as president, along with the IOC’s now retired and highly regarded Olympic Games strategy and planning director Gilbert Felli, who played a crucial role in coordinating efforts for Sydney; marketer of the rings, Michael Payne; and emerging senior executives and leaders including Dubi and Philippe Furrer.
We also had a lot of help from a lot of friends along the way.
These included the Hollywood actor and advocate, Geena Davis, who pitched in to help publicise archery, an unfamiliar sport in Australia. The highly acclaimed Davis, who almost qualified for the US Olympic archery team, was in a league of her own.
Ticket sales soared, much to the relief of our ticket communications manager John O’Neill, and Davis gave archery its biggest profile since Robin Hood.
The Australian public and volunteers were our best friends, filling the venues and supporting and celebrating the Games like never before. They, and many hundreds of thousands of others, each played important roles and made the Games possible.
CONCLUSION: SYDNEY’S ‘ONCE & FUTURE’ OLYMPIC GAMES
Sydney’s party atmosphere created a new sports and entertainment experience and model for the Olympic movement.
Venues were designed as high performing entertainment centres for sport with relevant and integrated functions and services for athletes, spectators, broadcasters, officials, and support teams.
Sydney’s Olympic venues went beyond sport, reducing carbon emissions and traditional energy requirements through recycled water and solar power to reduce environmental impact.
The Sydney Olympic Park and Village was one of the biggest solar powered communities in the southern hemisphere.
New Olympic-related infrastructure for the Games, including road and rail connections, has provided commercial and community services for a new suburb to help met Sydney’s expanding population.
This was a model for the Olympic Movement’s focus on legacy and sustainable community and environmental change linked to the Games, providing a template for the regeneration of east London through the London 2012 Games.
Along with great sport and a great party, the Sydney Games also had great humanity, pointing to possibilities for progress in wider society.
This included North and South Korea delegations united behind the Olympic flag, and former US President Bill Clinton using Sydney’s reconciliation theme as motivation for Middle East Peace talks.
The bravery of East Timor athletes who emerged from a deadly civil war to proudly represent their devastated nation in Sydney touched the world. Sports equipment, clothing and other assistance was organised by former Australian IOC executive Kevan Gosper to support athletes from the impoverished nation.
“The achievements and symbols of hope and progress from the Sydney Olympic Games are needed now more than ever.”
Some East Timor athletes had trained in bare feet or street shoes to get to the Games, which marked a significant step in the newly independent nation’s important relationships within the international community.
The Sydney Games was attended by the late Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Peter Norman, the white Olympic sliver medal sprinter from Australia in the famous Mexico Games Black Power Salute. The trio dreamed of equality and peace and they believed that the Olympic values and sport mattered and that black lives most certainly matter.
Sydney’s Games helped to highlight the heritage, culture, and achievements of Australia’s indigenous people in key Olympic programs and moments, showed that black lives matter, and the programs illustrated how Olympic sport, human rights and the environment matter.
FROM SYDNEY TO TOKYO
The Sydney Games, its reconciliation ceremonies, and Cathy Freeman’s win remain among Australia’s proudest moments. The impact and influence spans the sporting, political and social culture of the host nation.
Momentum gained from Freeman’s victory has helped to pave the way for a new generation of indigenous and non-indigenous athletes.
These include Australia’s proudly indigenous new women’s world tennis number one, Ashleigh Barty, and the captain of the Australian national women’s soccer team, Samantha Kerr.
“I am still inspired by Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Olympics,” Kerr said after Australia and New Zealand were selected earlier this year to co-host the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023.
The FIFA final, arguably the biggest sporting event in Australia since the 2000 Olympics, alongside the 2015 Men’s Cricket World Cup, will be held in the same stadium where Freeman won her medal in Sydney Olympic Park.
But the world has changed dramatically on the journey from Sydney to Tokyo. The Sydney Olympics could not have happened in the current pandemic – opening ceremony audience participation kits would contain a face mask and sanitiser instead of a glow torch.
In a world broken by coronavirus, race relations and environmental degradation, the achievements and symbols of hope and progress from the Sydney Olympic Games are needed now more than ever.
Michael Pirrie is an international media and communications advisor and commentator on major events. Michael was media adviser with the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, and led the global media campaign for the successful London 2012 Olympic Games Bid against New York, Paris, Moscow and Madrid.