Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman
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How Cathy Freeman came to light the Olympic cauldron in Sydney

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About four months before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman and her husband dined with the Australian Olympic Committee president at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, where she was training.

Freeman, already a 400m world champion, the 1998 Australian of the Year as an Aboriginal icon, sensed that the Olympic boss, 50-year-old John Coates, was nervous. She soon learned why.

“We’d be really honored if you’d like to light the cauldron,” Coates revealed to her.

Freeman was shy, but she accepted without hesitation. Even when warned about the weight it could add to her race prep.

“John, I like pressure,” she reportedly said. “That’s when I perform at my best.”

About five seconds later, she turned back to him.

“I understand if you change your mind,” she added.

Coates didn’t.

“I preferred Cathy because hers was the biggest sport on the Olympic program, plus the Indigenous aspect,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that Coates also considered swimmer Susie O’Neill and field hockey player Rechelle Hawkes worthy, active candidates. “I thought awarding the honor to an Aboriginal athlete would send a wonderful signal to the world.”

The night before the Opening Ceremony, around 10:30, Freeman surreptitiously left a Sydney hotel. She boarded a car, was hidden under a blanket and taken to Stadium Australia for a rehearsal. The identity of the cauldron lighter remained a secret, though on this night the penultimate torch bearer — 1988 Olympic 400m hurdles gold medalist Debbie Flintoff-King — joined the need-to-know group, according to Australian media. (The whole scene was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali‘s rehearsal in Atlanta in 1996 with Janet Evans)

On Sept. 15, 2000, Freeman shivered in a wet, white body suit (with the Olympic rings sewn upside down), her right hand grasping a torch accommodating the Olympic Flame.

She stared ahead as tens of thousands of people fixed on her that night, plus millions more on TVs around the world. She just lit the cauldron, a ring of fire with a waterfall surrounding and sprinkling an athlete who already had a head cold.

“It was all really calm, and it was really hard to know exactly what was going on around me, because I was listening quite attentively to what was being said to me,” via an earpiece, Freeman told NBC Sports a year after the Games, noting an initial thought upon receiving the flame was a fear of falling down the five flights of stairs she first had to ascend. “So I didn’t really have time to soak up the atmosphere.”

A problem with the movable cauldron — it refused to lift toward the top of the stadium, stalled for four minutes — complicated her thoughts.

“Then I hear in the [earpiece] we’ve got a slight technical hitch, nothing that can’t be fixed,” said Freeman, the last of a lineup of all-female torch bearers in the stadium to mark 100 years of women at the Games. “Then it’s swearing, and the next thing is crazy swearing and screaming. I can’t repeat what I heard because it’s swearing.”

Turns out, those 240 seconds were precious. The cauldron was running out of gas needed to keep it lit until it reached the top of the stadium. Quite literally, it was nearly extinguished before the Games began, artistic director and producer David Atkins told Australia’s 7 Network for a 20th anniversary TV special.

Freeman didn’t know any of this. But she felt the need to give the impression that everything was fine. She remained standing, holding the torch out in front of her. She turned to the dark crowd at one point, then back to the cauldron. Finally, she descended the stairs just before it started moving and enveloped in a covering held by swimming legend Dawn Fraser.

“I actually was surprised when you couldn’t see my legs shaking,” she said. “I had a fantastic evening. I just wasn’t ready to let myself acknowledge what was going on because I had a race to win.”

Ten nights later, Freeman won the Olympic 400m final, dubbed “the race of our lives” by Australian media, in front of some 110,000 spectators. It came on arguably the greatest day of competition in one sport in Olympic history — Magic Monday at the Sydney Games.

Freeman, after her victory lap, was asked what she thought of when she saw the cauldron burning above the stadium.

“I lit that!” she said with a laugh with the Australian and Aboriginal flags around her neck. “It’s been a real kick. A very big honor to be asked to do it. I couldn’t reject, even though I gave the AOC every chance to change their mind. They had every confidence in me that I was the right person for the job.”

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Fifteen memorable moments from Sydney 2000 Olympics

Cathy Freeman
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On the 15th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, here are 15 chronological memories:

Sept. 15 — Cathy Freeman lights Olympic cauldron

The cauldron lighting proved one of the most poignant in Olympic history, with World 400m champion Cathy Freeman being handed the torch after a final relay in the stadium with all female torchbearers, marking 100 years of women’s participation at the Olympics.

The choice of Freeman was also noteworthy as she’s Aboriginal. She was recently reunited with the suit she wore on Sept. 15, 2000, after it disappeared from her dressing room after she took it off later that night.

Sept. 16 — Australians smash the Americans like guitars in 4x100m relay

Perhaps the most anticipated U.S.-Australia showdown came on the first night of medal competition in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.

Before the Olympics, outspoken U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. wrote, “We will smash them like guitars,” in an otherwise complimentary piece about Australia and its swimmers.

Hall would anchor the U.S. in the relay, which it had never lost at the Olympics (excluding the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games). He would face Australia’s new superstar, the 17-year-old Ian Thorpe, who earlier that night won the 400m free in world-record time.

Hall outsplit Thorpe on the anchor leg, but Thorpe held on for the win, sending the Sydney Aquatic Centre into a frenzy. Most memorably, bald Michael Klim, who broke the 100m free world record leading off, led an Aussie air guitar strum session after Thorpe touched the wall.

Sept. 18-19 — Michael Phelps’ Olympic debut

It barely made headlines at the time, but the 15-year-old who finished fifth in the 200m butterfly in his first Olympic event would eventually become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Michael Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer since 1932 in Sydney and showed his youth by taking the wrong athlete credential to the pool and forgetting to tie his swimsuit strings before his first race. But the talent was evident.

“Boy, this guy’s going to be great one day,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast.

FLASHBACK: Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Sept. 19 — Eric the Eel

Equatorial Guinea’s Eric Moussambani captivated the Sydney Aquatic Centre as he swam alone in the first heat of the 100m freestyle. Moussambani struggled to complete the distance, eventually touching the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history.

Eric the Eel received thunderous applause from the crowd recognizing the Olympic value of not the triumph, but the struggle. Not to conquer, but to take part.

Misty Hyman
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Sept. 20 — Misty upsets Madame Butterfly

The U.S. bettered Australia in the women’s 200m butterfly, when Misty Hyman stunned heavy gold-medal favorite Susie O’Neill. O’Neill, nicknamed “Madame Butterfly,” entered the race as the reigning Olympic and World champion and the world-record holder. So beloved in Australia, the butterfly was referred to as “the Susie stroke.”

Hyman, in her only career Olympic race, summoned an Olympic and American record swim that was .07 off O’Neill’s world record. O’Neill claimed silver, seven tenths of a second behind.

Sept. 21 — Controversial women’s all-around final

It’s a night many gymnastics fans choose not to remember. The women’s all-around final was won by Andreea Raducan in a Romanian podium sweep, which could have been historic.

However, Raducan was stripped of the crown later in the Sydney Games after testing positive for a banned substance from cold-medicine pills given to her by a team doctor. The blame fell on the doctor, and the women who were upgraded in the final medal standings all reportedly said Raducan was the deserving winner.

Also, during the all-around final, it was discovered the vault was set too low. It had to be reset, and all gymnasts who had competed on the faulty apparatus were given the option of re-doing their vaults. Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who had the highest all-around score in qualifying, fell on the mis-measured vault and then again on her trademark apparatus, uneven bars. She chose not to re-do her vault. It wouldn’t have mattered. She finished 10th.

Sept. 22-30 — The drive for five

Marion Jones was the biggest American star of the Games, though she would be stripped of all five of her medals, including golds in the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay, after a 2007 admission that she used performance-enhancing drugs leading up to Sydney.

Sept. 24 — Laura Wilkinson goes from eighth to gold

Only one non-Chinese won an individual diving title in Sydney. The shocking effort came from Texan Laura Wilkinson.

Wilkinson jumped from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to take platform gold. She prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training. The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving medal.

Sept. 25 — Dunk de la mort

The U.S. men’s basketball team looked human at times during the Games, beating Lithuania by two points in the semifinals and France by 10 in the final. But not Vince Carter in one highlight.

Carter, nicknamed “Half-Man, Half-Amazing,” posterized 7-foot, 2-inch Frederic Weis in a preliminary-round game against the French with a slam that became known as “Dunk de la mort” (Dunk of Death). Weis had been drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1999 but never played in the NBA.

Sept. 25 — U.S. softball completes comeback

The Americans came to Sydney riding a 110-game winning streak, but that was snapped by Japan in group play. The next day, the U.S. lost to China. The day after that, the U.S. lost to Australia.

Pitcher Lisa Fernandez led the team in a cleansing, jumping in the shower together with their uniforms on, in hopes of breaking the curse. It worked. The U.S. won its next five games, including beating China, Australia and Japan in the medal round to repeat as Olympic champion.

Cathy Freeman
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Sept. 25 — Magic Monday

The Olympic cauldron lighter Freeman captured 400m gold in front of a reported more than 110,000 spectators at Stadium Australia as part of perhaps the greatest single day of competition in one sport in Olympic history. Magic Monday, they called it.

Also that night, Michael Johnson won his final individual Olympic race (men’s 400m), Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault, British world-record holder Jonathan Edwards won his first gold medal in his fourth Olympics and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie beat Kenyan rival Paul Tergat by .09 of a second in a furious final sprint in the 10,000m.

9/25/00: Magic Monday at Sydney Olympics

Sept. 27 — Miracle on the Mat

Maybe the biggest gold-medal favorite going into the Olympics was Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, who had not lost a match in 13 years and not been scored upon in six.

The chiseled Russian made it to the Sydney final, seeking his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. There, he would be beaten 1-0 by Wyoming farm boy Rulon Gardner, who celebrated by doing a cartwheel and somersault on the mat.

Sept. 27 — Miracle on Grass

The most famous name on the U.S. baseball team of major-league castoffs and minor-league prospects was its manager, Tommy Lasorda.

In the gold-medal game, the Americans shocked Cuba, which had won all 18 of its games en route to gold medals in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments in 1992 and 1996. Ben Sheets pitched a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 victory.

MORE: Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team

Sept. 28 — Best women’s soccer game ever?

In a thrilling gold-medal game, Norway upset the reigning Olympic and World Cup champion U.S. 3-2 with a sudden-death goal in the 102nd minute after the Americans had forced extra time with a stoppage-time score. It’s the only Olympic loss for the U.S. women’s soccer team in five tournaments.

Norway’s Dagny Mellgren scored the winner after a ricocheted ball hit her left arm, causing some to say it merited a handball call.

Oct. 1 — ‘Best Olympic Games ever’

The Closing Ceremony included Greg Norman hitting soft golf balls into the crowd, Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, the Bananas in Pajamas and Elle Macpherson walking a runway on a float resembling a camera.

More memorably, Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Sydney 2000 to be “the best Olympic Games ever” in the closing address of his final Olympics as IOC president.