Since the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and reminisce about my favourite sporting moments.
I think mine would have to be when the Matildas won the World Cup and Lydia Williams invited me to celebrate with the team in the rooms afterwards… then I remembered that that was actually just a recent dream I had.
My actual favourite moment does still have a dreamlike quality to it. Sometimes I can’t believe that I was actually there given that it’s such a significant cultural and historic moment in Australian sport. I was at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and I witnessed Cathy Freeman’s 400m gold medal. Even when I write this, I still pinch myself.
So, how did I come to be at the Olympic Stadium on that fateful night? Well, I wish there was a better story, but it was actually quite innocuous. My dad’s work had a couple of tickets left over that they literally could not give away. Dad asked me if I wanted them, I said yes and that is pretty much the extent of it. Back then, I was a poor uni student, so purchasing tickets to the Olympics hadn’t really been on my radar. As a lifelong sport-lover I snapped them up with gusto. I mean, attending an Olympic Games was a once in a lifetime opportunity right?
All I knew was that the tickets would be for a day and night session at the athletics. Once I had them in my hand, the next task was to look up the schedule. Mind you, back then it wasn’t as easy as pulling out your phone. I had to log into the one computer in the house, using the dial up internet, to check the Olympics website.
Monday 25 September were the dates printed across the tickets and low and behold, the text staring back at me on the flickering computer monitor stated ‘Women’s 400m Final’. You know those moments where you check yourself? When you can’t really believe what you’re seeing and you do a triple-take. When you sit there and wonder if a mistake has been made or a prank has been pulled? Yep, this was one of those moments. I remember in the following days I called my Dad just to make sure the tickets had genuinely been left-over. He assured me they were. Go figure.
Fast forward to September and Mum and I made the trip to Sydney. (Mum is entirely responsible for my obsession with sport, so there was no one else I wanted to share this with more). We packed a day pack and travelled all the way out to Western Sydney to the Olympic Stadium. I’m not sure if any of you have been to an international athletics meet before, but there is A LOT going on. Field events are happening in between and sometimes during the track events. Officials dart in and set-up hurdles while a section of the crowd is getting behind the triple jump – you get the gist.
The day session is typically made up of race heats and early knock-out rounds of field events. I remember being just so overawed with the scale of the event and the fact that there was always something to watch. It also became clear to me that the size of the event and the level of organisation involved is one of the many reasons why the Olympics is the pinnacle of international sport. I don’t want to dismiss or discount any of the athletes who competed that day, but in truth, it was just building anticipation for the night ahead.
As day turned to night, the stadium, which was mostly full during the day, was packed to the rafters by the evening. I’ve been part of some very big crowds at the MCG including a number of finals and grand finals where the noise is deafening. They all pale into insignificance compared to the atmosphere and volume in the Olympic Stadium that night.
Mum and I were sitting on the ground level on what was the back straight for the 400m final. It sounds so cliched, but it felt like the air was buzzing with anticipation and nervous energy.
The athletes filed out onto the track and when the loud speaker announced Cathy’s name the roar was enormous. It was clear almost every single of the 100,000 people in the stadium that night were behind her. No pressure, Cathy!
As they took their starting positions, a hush fell over the crowd. With the crack of the starter’s pistol everyone erupted. Even at that moment it was louder than any crowd I’d been part of before. By the time the runners were rounding the first bend I noticed the crowd was rising to its feet. What I remember next is what I can only describe as a wall of sound that accompanied the athletes around the track. What I thought was loud as the race began, just became louder and louder and louder as the runners approached our section of the stadium. By the time they flashed past us, the sound surged in unison.
As they came around to the home straight, Cathy made her move and when she crossed the finish line, well, there was outright pandemonium. Even almost 20 years later, my memories of being there and the feel of the atmosphere are still so clear. I often think about the burden of expectation Cathy Freeman must have carried that night and what discipline it must have taken to not let it weigh her down. But I also like to think that the 100,000 people in the stadium and the millions watching at home played a small role in spurring her on.
Whatever the case, my recollection barely does Cathy’s performance justice, I’m just eternally grateful that I was there to witness it.
Bruce McAvaney said it best:
“This is a famous victory. A magnificent performance. What a legend. What a champion.”