Sydney 2000

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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NBCSN’s Olympic Games Week: What to watch on Sunday

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NBCSN’s Olympic Games Week concludes Sunday with a pair of Olympic films and Mary Carillo‘s adventures through Olympic host countries.

The film “1968” airs at 10:30 p.m. ET. It dissects the intersection of sports and politics leading up to and during the Mexico City Olympics. It is narrated by Serena Williams.

It tells the stories not only of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the medal podium, but also Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska and triumphs from the likes of Bob BeamonGeorge Foreman and Dick Fosbury.

Later, the official film for the 2000 Sydney Olympics airs at 12 a.m.

Bud Greenspan‘s film features athlete stories including Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe and sprinter Cathy Freeman, Dutch cyclist Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel and the U.S. baseball team that uspet Cuba for gold. Los Angeles Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda managed the club.

Finally, at 2:30 a.m., a half-hour show shares Carillo’s stories from visiting Olympic hosts including Beijing and London.

LIVE STREAM: NBCSN Olympic Games Week — Saturday, 8 p.m.-3 a.m. ET

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NBCSN Olympic Games Week — Sunday, April 26

Time (ET) Program Events Live Stream
10:30 p.m. Olympic Films ‘1968’ documentary Stream Link
12 a.m. Olympic Films Sydney 2000 Stream Link
2:30 a.m. Mary Carillo Summer Olympic Adventures Stream Link

 

When ‘Eric the Eel’ captivated the Sydney Olympics

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Eric Moussambani had never been in an Olympic-size pool when he arrived in Australia for the 2000 Sydney Games, his first time outside of Equatorial Guinea.

Imagine his thoughts, then, after the other two swimmers in his 100m freestyle first-round heat false-started, leaving Moussambani to swim alone. To swim farther than he ever had before. And to do it in front of thousands of people at the Sydney Aquatic Centre.

Moussambani, who had trained for three months in a hotel pool no bigger than 20 meters, struggled to complete the distance. So much that people near the pool reportedly contemplated diving in to rescue him in the final meters. The crowd, noticing an Olympic moment, roared in support.

He eventually touched the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history and more than 50 seconds behind the slowest swimmer of the rest of the heats.

Moussambani became a media sensation. He was given a nickname: Eric the Eel, reminiscent of Eddie the Eagle, the British ski jumper who finished last at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.

“I didn’t know how to speak English back then. People were saying I was a star,” Moussambani said in 2012, according to CNN. “But I didn’t know what to do. A lot of people were making fun of me, others were congratulating me.”

Moussambani made it to the Olympics under universality rules allowing small nations that didn’t qualify any swimmers by time to still enter an athlete. Those universality rules have since been amended, requiring swimmers to compete in the prior year’s world championships to be eligible for the Olympics.

Moussambani went on to lower his personal best to 57 seconds. He hoped to compete in the 2004 Athens Games, but a passport issue reportedly kept him out. Moussambani later became a swim coach, though Equatorial Guinea hasn’t entered any swimmers at the Olympics since Sydney.

A pair of Olympic-size pools would be built in Equatorial Guinea, a West African nation the size of Massachusetts (but with one-fifth the population).

“Before, nobody knew me and now everyone does,” Moussambani reportedly said in 2000. “So this is good for me and my people.”

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