It’s rare that I come across anyone who doesn’t look back fondly when they remember how Australia felt when we hosted the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.
Even as they happened, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch went so far as to call them “the best Games ever” – and two decades on, they remain the benchmark by which all other host cities gauge themselves. But why do we hold on to our memories of those 16 days so dearly?
For starters, there were incredible acts of athleticism that kept us glued to our televisions and radios; people can still reel off favourite moments as if they happened last year.
I think about Cathy Freeman, who thrilled us with her ethereal performance in the 400m dash, outclassing her opposition when it mattered most, collapsing when the enormity of what she had achieved hit her. When she paused on the track, the nation held its collective breath, too.
I think about Eric the Eel from Equatorial Guinea, who proved that you don’t have to be the best at anything to show true courage and heart. He swam the slowest time in Olympic history for the 100m freestyle, but no-one cared. They cheered him on for the very fact that he never gave up.
I think about the sheer emotion cyclists Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken showed when they won gold in the inaugural madison event – the tears they shed not only for their victory, but also because of the enormous personal pain they suffered just to compete.
I think about the moments of raw heartache, too, like watching Jane Saville being disqualified as she entered the stadium in the lead position during the final stretch of the 20km walk.
Her pain was more than palpable and many of us cried with her, yet the way she handled her disappointment remains one of the classiest things I have witnessed.
But what happened here in 2000 was about so much more. There was spirit in the air, provided not only by the athletes, but also the spectators, volunteers… just about anybody who descended on Sydney.
It was like anyone who ever tried to be too cool for school dropped the act and allowed themselves to be swept up in the excitement.
We put on opening and closing ceremonies the whole nation could be proud of. Yes, we poked fun at ourselves occasionally and, looking back, the tenor could be a bit jingoistic. But we’re Aussie. Who better than us to show the world that we can laugh at ourselves?
As we approach the 20th anniversary, I think we look back with even more fondness because they represent a moment so different than the one we find ourselves in now.
We could gather in large numbers, hug random strangers or sing along with one another on public transport without consequence.
“Social distancing” was a phrase that meant nothing. And we didn’t think about wearing masks – what on Earth for?
It was as if it was a more innocent time. For me, it only brings back wonderful memories… And right now, I miss it more than ever.
Towards Tokyo: Olympic Games Sydney 2000 Moments That Moved Us airs at 9.15pm Tuesday on the Seven Network.