Looking back at the Sydney Olympics: a journalist's recollection

The lasting memory through these past two decades, however, had not been about Sydney or its hospitality. It was about the epic 10,000m duel between Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat at Stadium Australia.

The quick airport clearance and accreditation procedures, the well-laid-out media centre and an efficient transport system showed how well the Sydney Olympics organising committee had prepared.   -  AP

The sheer magnitude of an edition of the Olympic Games overwhelms you as you get down to preparing to cover one. Picking disciplines to report on is not such a difficult task though. Obviously, athletics and swimming get priority.

The quick airport clearance and accreditation procedures, the well-laid-out media centre and an efficient transport system showed how well the Sydney Olympics organising committee had prepared.

The lasting memory through these past two decades, however, had not been about the city or its hospitality, Cathy Freeman’s cauldron-lighting or the lone medal – a bronze – that India managed through weightlifter Karnam Malleswari. It was about the epic 10,000m duel between Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat at Stadium Australia. The world might not have witnessed such a battle till then. Nor after that even.

Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat of Kenya during the 10,000 metres at the Sydney Olympics, 25th September 2000. Gebrselassie took the gold medal and Tergat, the silver.   -  Getty Images

 

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Many a writer has described it as the greatest athletics contest. A 10,000m race being fought over the final 90m, inch by inch, was a sight to behold. Both looked ready to fall dead by the end.

“I think if you came back to Ethiopia and it was silver or bronze for Haile, I don’t think people would have accepted it,” said Gebrselassie. That feeling drove the great man, troubled by injuries early in the season, and lucky to have made it to the Australian city.

Tergat once again came second-best as he had several times in the past. “I had nothing left at the end,” the Kenyan said.

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Through 11 finals between 1993 and 2000, Gebrselassie had remained unbeaten in the 10k. The streak-ending loss was to come at the world championships in Edmonton in 2001, against Kenyan Charles Kamathi.

The Sydney Olympics had a lot more than a Gebrselassie-Tergat contest. Like Olympics usually have. Sydney welcomed the world in a grand fashion at an extravagant opening ceremony in which the suspense about who would light the cauldron was kept up till the last moment.

It turned out to be Freeman, the aborigine 400m runner whose expected battle with two-time Olympic champion Marie-Jose Perec was built up to such a high pitch that the Frenchwoman eventually left the Australian city without competing, complaining of harassment! Nothing could be substantiated though.

The choice of Freeman was a “politically correct” decision, but many Australians admitted that Dawn Fraser should have been the most appropriate choice. The legendary Aussie swimmer, a quadruple Olympic gold medallist, was instead invited to sit in the presidential box by the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, who served as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1980 to 2001.

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Talking of Australian swimming, the frenzy of the fans at the Aquatic Centre whenever Ian Thorpe stepped in had to be seen to be believed. Thorpe, all of 17, shoe size 17, making his Olympic debut at home, won the 400m freestyle and helped his team to two relay gold medals. There were other Aussie heroes and heroines in the pool, notably Grant Hackett, the 1,500m freestyle winner, and Susie O’Neill, the women’s 200m freestyle winner, but Thorpe had hundreds of adoring fans inside and outside the facility.

Ian Thorpe of Australia at the start of the mens 400m Freestyle Final at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre during Day One of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Thorpe won Gold with a new World Record time of 3:40:59.   -  Getty Images

 

The Sydney Games saw the eclipse of two great swimmers, Alexander Popov of Russia and Australia’s Kieren Perkins. Popov, gunning for an unprecedented 100-200 freestyle double for the third time at the Olympics, was beaten by Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in the shorter sprint. The Russian shrugged it off at the post-race press conference, saying: “I can’t win every day, I have to share them, too.” Perkins, a two-time Olympic champion in the 1,500m freestyle, was beaten to second place by countryman Hackett.

Aside from the buildup to the Freeman-Perec fight in the 400m, the most-awaited feat in athletics was Marion Jones’s five-gold attempt. The American track star with her bewitching smile and superb athletic abilities was favoured to win the sprint double. The two relays were possibilities, and the long jump provided another golden window.

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Jones eventually won three gold medals, the sprint double plus the 4x400m, but had to be content with bronze in the long jump and the shorter relay. Later, following the BALCO investigation and her admission of doping plus lying to federal officers, she was imprisoned for six months in 2008. All her medals were annulled by the International Association of Athletics Federations, now renamed World Athletics.

Those of us who marvelled at Jones’s ability to run fast and jump far and her smiling countenance at media interactions were left wondering “can athletics be dope free?” Two decades down the line, we know it cannot be!

China's Weining Lin, who won a gold medal in the women's 69-kg weightlifting competition at the Olympic games in Sydney, flanked by the silver medallist, Hungary's Erzsebet Markus(left) and the bronze winner, India's Karnam Malleswari.   -  THE HINDU

 

From an Indian point of view, Malleswari’s bronze in the 69kg class in weightlifting marked the first time an Indian woman had won an Olympic medal. Weightlifting having made its Olympic debut in Sydney and Malleswari having been a world champion twice, there were heightened expectations when the team left for Sydney. Bronze was sort of a disappointment for her as well as the Indian contingent, but having a medal was better than nothing at all.

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The rest of the contingent could not contribute much. Abhinav Bindra, just 17 and making his Olympic debut, however, showed a bright future awaited him by finishing 11th in 10m air rifle event. Eight years later, he would win the elusive gold that India had been looking for in an individual event through decades.

The athletics team went with fond hopes, but ended up with nothing bar a semifinal slot for one-lapper K. M. Beenamol. The hype back home and the eventual eclipse prepared one for the worst in athletics for India in ensuing editions of the Games.

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