It was the warm-up act for what was considered “the greatest peacetime logistical exercise in history” and a test of Sydney’s fitness for the world stage.
- It’s been 20 years since the Olympic torch relay reached Sydney for the 2000 Games
- The relay cost $12m, involved 12,000 torchbearers and travelled to more than 1,000 towns and suburbs
- Torchbearers say the relay brought the Olympics to ordinary Australians
The 2000 Olympic Relay took five years to plan and involved 12,000 torchbearers travelling across deserts, down mountains, and even underwater on an odyssey from Athens to Australia.
The $12 million moving celebration was famously said to have come within 10 kilometres of 90 per cent of the population as the nation showcased its diverse communities to the world.
On the 20th anniversary of its arrival in Sydney, those responsible for carrying the sacred flame have reflected on the spectacle that kickstarted “the best Olympics ever”.
An Olympic feat
As general manager for the relay, event organiser Di Henry was responsible for pulling off the mammoth event.
It was her first Olympic relay and she faced a logistical task of unparalleled complexity to get the flame from Olympia to Olympic Park, Homebush.
For five years her team negotiated with corporate sponsors, organised 12,000 runners and consulted with various government authorities — from the Australian Federal Police to local councils.
All of it was geared towards keeping the flame alive, which was guarded by a multi-jurisdictional police force, and a responsibility Ms Henry considered sacrosanct.
From the torch’s first appearance at the Berlin Games in 1928 to the iconic image of Muhammad Ali holding it aloft in Atlanta in 1996, each country had used the relay to leave a lasting impression.
But the determination to make Australia’s relay memorable pushed organisers to push the boundaries of what was possible.
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic to take the flame under water to showcase the Great Barrier Reef?” she said to her colleagues.
The mission involved a Melbourne-based company specialising in military explosives and months of trials but they pulled it off, making headlines around the world.
‘Incredible generosity’ from ordinary Aussies
There were challenging times as well, like the unexpected death of 74-year-old runner Ron King who suffered a heart attack after completing his leg.
“You prepare for mostly anything but when something like that happens it is still an incredible shock,” Ms Henry said.
But there are dozens of special moments that have stuck with Ms Henry over the years.
She can still picture the field of painted hands for reconciliation outside Cherbourg in Queensland, or the sight of 109-year-old digger Jack Lockett being cheered on by the town of Bendigo.
As the relay moved through more than 1,000 towns and suburbs, those moments, she said, reminded her that the relay’s real purpose was to make the Australian public feel a part of the event.
“We would have delightful old ladies come around with baked goods saying ‘We’re here to feed the torch team’.
“There was some incredible generosity.”
The relay was also an opportunity to showcase Australia’s multiculturalism.
For Tamara Leizer, the chance to represent her Jewish heritage was particularly important.
“My grandparents had escaped the holocaust and we were accepted in Australia and a part of Australian society, so that was extremely special to me,” she said.
“It was amazing to see so many different kinds of people run with the torch and bring everyone together, all the different communities across Australia.”
Ms Leizer ran at La Perouse but, to savour the atmosphere, her family followed the relay as it travelled around the city.
She said the inclusiveness of the event was one of the most memorable elements.
Running in the relay was an honour retired school teacher Allan Jones experienced twice in his lifetime.
He was a young graduate when he first carried an Olympic torch for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and practised for weeks with a length of pipe and a piston.
Twenty years ago he was selected for his work as a sailing instructor for people with disabilities.
He ran 400 metres along Roseville Bridge, a short distance from his home.
“The crowds were amazing, they lined the footpath and it was a most exciting time for Sydney.”
He volunteered to help run the paralympic sailing events and later used his torch to inspire other sailors.
“I could feel that the spirit of the Games was in their minds when they held the torch,” he said.
From anxiety to ecstasy
As a lifelong athletics competitor, Kerry Bray had her heart set on bringing the Olympics to Australia.
“I was at the first meeting of volunteers in 1992 and I stayed involved right up until the games,” she said.
It made the more than 1,000 hours she spent preparing in the lead-up well worth it.
“I was working full time, so weekends were taken up with meetings and we put in hours after work,” she said.
Her hard work was officially recognised when she carried the torch through her home suburb of Cronulla.
“It was magic, there were crowds and cheering … the spotlight was right on us,” she said.
Ms Bray remains fiercely proud of Sydney’s effort.
“There was a lot of negativity around the cost, and people said Sydney won’t be able to cope with the transport, but we knew it was going to be awesome.”
She believes the relay helped turn people’s fears into excitement.
“It was what brought the public together … it went within 10 kilometres of 90 per cent of the population, so everybody got the chance to see the relay. You were part of the Olympics.”