Cathy, Nikki and when Sydney hosted the world at the Olympics

 

 

Twenty years ago on Tuesday the eyes of the world were on Sydney for the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games.

The Opera House forecourt was packed and Nicky Webster was preparing to fly high above a packed Olympic Stadium as the 13-year-old star of an opening ceremony that would set the tone for a joyful event that was quintessentially Australian.

"It was a magical time and everyone was here for one reason - to celebrate the Olympics," Webster said. "We are very lucky, we had nothing like COVID overshadowing the event."

Today Sydney is empty. Where Akubra-wearing volunteers greeted overseas visitors with a smile, and people packed public spaces to watch events, there are now empty streets and everyone is carefully and warily socially distanced.

"I think we were very blessed to have experienced the world at its best in a country at its best," Webster said.

But not everything went according to plan - Webster recalls her feet being struck by a flying jellyfish during her six-and-a-half minutes soaring high above 110,000 rapt spectators.

"That had never happened before," Webster, now a 33-year-old mother of two recalled on Monday. "We just adapted. You literally get one shot at getting it right."

At the time she was not thinking about the 2.1 billion people watching on television screens across the globe but of nailing it for artistic director David Atkins.

"I wanted to make him proud and bring his vision to life," she said.

And what a vision.

"It was quintessentially Australian without being stereotypically Australian," Mr Atkins told The Daily Telegraph. "It was an insight into Australian culture that people were not familiar with."

 

Nikki Webster flying through the air just like she was 20 years ago. Picture: Toby Zerna
Nikki Webster flying through the air just like she was 20 years ago. Picture: Toby Zerna

 

FLAMING DISASTER

Unlike the giant digital stadium events that followed, the 2000 Olympic opening ceremony was largely an analog event literally run on wires.

"It proved that we have a lot of companies and people who could deliver big events in the future," Mr Atkins said. To him that is the biggest legacy of the 2000 games.

"Australians have been involved in every major event since - Beijing, London, Rio, Athens, Vancouver," he said.

That may not have been the case if luck and good back-up planning had not been on Sydney's side.

Michael Knight, Games Minister at the time, said the ceremony came within a hair's breadth of disaster and being forever remembered for the biggest stuff up in Olympic history.

"Triumph and tragedy walk hand-in-hand and the difference between success and international failure is so close," he said.

 

Cathy Freeman ignites the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney nearly did not happen. Picture: Victoria Arocho
Cathy Freeman ignites the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney nearly did not happen. Picture: Victoria Arocho

 

Mr Knight can recall sitting in the official box at the opening ceremony with Prime Minister John Howard, Premier Bob Carr and Olympics boss Juan Antonio Samaranch as though it were yesterday.

Cathy Freeman had lit the circle of flames in a cauldron of water with the Olympic torch but as it started to rise the giant ring juddered to a halt.

"Bob Carr nudged me in the back and asked me what was going on," Mr Knight said. "I had a camera in my face so I told him it was a pause for dramatic effect."

It wasn't. The ring had not connected with the motor correctly, which had taken off without it, severing the wires that controlled it.

"What I knew, and nobody else did in the box, was that the gas for the flame was coming from gas bottles until the ring got to the top of the vertical railway and could be connected to the main gas line."

 

 

 

 

MAGICAL MOMENT

The previous night Cathy Freeman had run through a number of rehearsals. Despite reassurances there was still plenty of gas in the bottles project manager Colin Ging had said "indulge me" and insisted they be refilled.

"This was the area of greatest risk," Mr Knight said. "Fortunately engineer Rob Ironside had recognised that when he was brought on-board and had insisted on installing a manual back-up."

As the world watched with bated breath for more than four achingly long minutes, the engineers used that manual back-up to drive the motor up the vertical railway and connect it to the main gas line.

 

The torch lighting was finally a success. Picture: Kevin Frayer/AP
The torch lighting was finally a success. Picture: Kevin Frayer/AP

 

"By the time it got there the gas bottles were empty and the flame was being fuelled by vapour," Mr Knight said. "We came that close to the sacred Olympic flame, lit by the sun's rays in Olympia, carried through Oceania, carried by over 10,000 torch bearers around Australia, almost dying out on international television with the whole world watching."

Fortune was on Australia's side - even the weather was perfect. Former NSW Premier John Fahey, who died this week aged 75, joked about it during the Games to Mr Knight.

"He mentioned the weather and I pointed out that it was exactly the weather he had promised in the winning bid," Mr Knight said.

Mr Fahey told him, with a happy smile: "Well, we knew it was statistically possible."

Originally published as Cathy, Nikki and when Sydney hosted the world at the Olympics



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