The Olympics provided the perfect forum for Howard to reimagine the debate. But he couldn’t rise to the occasion; not even Freeman’s gold medal run could soften his hard heart. Instead, he continued to play with words. A fortnight after the Games had ended, Howard took the unusual step of quoting Newspoll in defence: “It said what I think everybody feels, that the Olympic Games were good for reconciliation. But it also makes the point that the majority of people still oppose a formal apology. The message is that reconciliation does not equal a formal apology.”
The economic legacy of the Games is surprisingly benign. It didn’t bankrupt Sydney, but nor did it enhance its position. Australia was still on its knees when Sydney presented its bid to the International Olympic Committee in 1993. The unemployment rate was stuck at around 11 per cent, and the re-elected Labor government of Paul Keating had just delivered its horror budget. Nevertheless, the bid document painted a confident picture of recovery. Sydney’s population was to grow by 400,000 over the course of the decade, and pass 4 million in time for the opening ceremony. The NSW economy would add 500,000 jobs between 1991 and 2000, while gross state product per head of population would increase by 20 per cent. Forecasts with seven to 10-year time frames are next to useless, but this lot was prescient. Every benchmark was met, or exceeded. But it had nothing to do with the Games. Sydney had the advantage of a relatively soft landing in recession, which gave it the edge in the restructured economy of the 1990s.
The promise of the Olympics for Sydney was a step up in prosperity from the international visitors it attracted to NSW. The bid document assumed the annual number of tourists to the state would more than double, from 1 million in 1991 to 2.6 million by 2000. The forecasts were on track until 1996, but then the Asian financial crisis struck, and the market stalled. That meant the Games spike would come off a lower-than-expected base. In the end, NSW received 2.1 million visitors over the course of 2000, half a million short of forecast. And it was downhill from then on.
NSW would not achieve its Olympic year target until 2015. By then, the premier state represented just 37.4 per cent of a much larger tourism sector. In 2000, it had received 43.5 per cent of all the visitors to Australia.
The problem, looking back, was that Sydney hosted the Olympics at the peak of its economic strength. The year 2000 is best viewed as the cheerful end to a successful 1990s for the city, not the dawn of a new age.
The first decade of the 21st century belonged to the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland. The premier state couldn’t keep up. In every year from 2001-2 to 2013-14, the NSW economy grew slower than the national average. NSW has made up some ground since but it remains a shadow of its former triumphal self.
NSW represented 36 per cent of the Australian economy at the time of the Olympics. By 2018-19, that share had fallen to 32.1 per cent. That loss was essentially split between the north and the west. Queensland’s share of gross domestic product grew by 2.7 percentage points to 19 per cent, while Western Australia expanded by four points to 14.7 per cent over the same period. The combined weight of the mining states now exceeds the size of the NSW economy.
Another way to read the post-Olympic decline is in the head-to-head between Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney had 600,000 more people than Melbourne in 2001 (4.1 million against 3.5 million). That gap had closed to around 200,000 before the pandemic (5.3 million against 5.1 million in 2019), with Melbourne on course to become Australia’s most populous city by the middle of this decade.
Lockdown will reset these numbers, in every direction. But it remains to be seen whether they will shake out in Sydney’s favour. If they do, it would mark a pyrrhic victory for the city that failed to convert its Olympic moment when our doors were open.
Peter Hartcher is on leave.
George Megalogenis is a journalist, political commentator and author.