His eyes are gleaming with pride, while teeth in a wide smile catch the day’s last light.

Sitting on a remote beach in north-east Arnhem Land, thousands of kilometres away and 20 years on, Djakapurra Munyarryun recounts his leading role in the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.

“It was huge,” he beams.

Djakapurra Munyarryun still performs at home near Yirrkala in the Northern Territory.(ABC News: Matt McLean)

Munyarryun is perhaps most recognisable as a guide to the show’s younger star, Nikki Webster, but it was the chance to share his culture that meant so much to the Yolngu elder.

He carried a piece of it around his neck that night.

“I was carrying that sacred dillybag. It’s significant for my community and my clan group … [because it] carries a lot of stories,” Munyarryun said.

“When I was walking through the field, watching around, what surrounded me, there was a lot of eyes and there was a lot of cameras flashing, make me more proud.”

More than a 100,000 people witnessed the spectacular from the stands of Stadium Australia in Homebush, while another 2 billion from across the globe tuned in on television.

Djakapurra Munyarryan with Nikki Webster performing during the Olympic opening ceremony.(Allsport: Jed Jacobsohn)

But Munyarryun was not nervous.

“I started … when I was five years old,” he said.

“The dances and songs came from thousands of years [ago], we’re still doing it.

“People need to see that we are here, the Indigenous people of Australia.”

Djakapurra still performs, but these days spends more time closer to home at Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, teaching others traditional song and dance.

Stephen Page faced pressure to boycott the Sydney Olympics.(Supplied: Bangarra/Tobias Rowels)

Of the opening ceremony’s 12,000 performers, about 1,000 were involved in the Indigenous segments called ‘The Awakenings’, co-directed and choregraphed by Stephen Page.

“Ninety per cent of them had never been to the city,” he said.

“The fuel of empowerment that was running through our black veins at the time was very special.”

But Mr Page said he faced pressure from some quarters to boycott the Olympics and instead use the platform to campaign for black justice.

“I said I’d choregraph the protest march from Circular Quay to Victoria Park,” he recalled.

“But we needed to have representation inside the stadium and to hear our voices, so this was a perfect time for us in 2000.”

Shane Gould passes the Olympic torch to Debbie Flintoff-King during the ceremony in 2000.(Allsport: Billy Strickland)

It was also high time to celebrate the achievements of women.

Seven of Australia’s great female athletes — Betty Cuthbert, Raelene Boyle, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould, Debbie Flintoff-King, and Cathy Freeman — carried the torch in the opening ceremony, marking 100 year of women competing in the Games.

Olympic swimmer, Gould, said the group represented the depth of talent and the longevity of strong Australian performances by women.

The duty was an honour, Gould said, but it required serious preparation in secret.

“I got a call from John Coates, the President of the Australian Olympic Committee … he said this is of the highest secrecy.”

Gould thought she’d better practice some running so she practiced carrying a stick like a torch around the back streets of Margaret River where she lived at the time.

Shane Gould was one of Australia’s greatest female athletes chosen to carry the torch.(ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)

And what of nosy neighbours?

“There were some windy tracks so I could see if anyone was coming. I’d just sort of drop the stick,” Gould joked.

The operation was so clandestine, even Gould did not know who would be joining her on the night until she arrived in Sydney for uniform fittings.

She was in good company.

“Each one of them broke many barriers and showed that women just are. We don’t have to be compared with men,” Gould said.


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