Life as a Sydneysider when 'The Greatest Show on Earth' came to town

There we were, my future wife and I, jumping up and down in a garden bed, tears streaming down our cheeks, our screams adding to the roar of the thousands gathered in the pre-dawn light. On one of the giant television screens scattered around Circular Quay, Juan Antonio Samaranch had just announced Sydney would host the 2000 Olympic Games. It was September 24, 1993 and my first thoughts were of how great this would be for my city, for my young brother and sister, for Australia.

Seven years seemed a lifetime away, the turn of the century something often thought of as being in the far-off future. Still, Sydney had so much work to do to prepare for the Games, that many doubted seven years would be enough. All the effort to this point had been poured into convincing the International Olympic Committee that we could do it - now it was up to Sydney to deliver.

The bulldozers rolled, the Parramatta River-side suburb of Homebush became a hub of activity, as old industrial buildings and an abattoir were appropriated and wiped from the face of the earth. The landscape -- a sand and clay crusted birthmark in the middle of Sydney suburbia -- would see the building of a 110,000-capacity stadium, a smaller horse-shoe-shaped stadium to host 21,000, an indoor arena seating over 18,000, a hockey complex, a tennis complex, an Olympic pool designed to house more than 10,000, an archery centre and various other buildings for 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.

From the surf suburbs in the east, to the city's western edge, Olympic venues sprouted up. At Horsely Park, an equestrian complex was constructed, in Bass Hill a velodrome, at Penrith a white-water and rowing complex. Plans were drawn up for a temporary stadium on Bondi Beach for the beach volley ball. The Sydney Football Stadium was given a facelift to help host the football; at Ryde a pool complex was built to host the water polo and buildings at Darling Harbour were repurposed. At Blacktown a softball and baseball complex was built, at Cecil Park a shooting complex. It seemed the whole of Sydney was being dug up and built on, and through the middle of it all the public transport system was being upgraded and extended. It was a busy and exciting time for the city.

Sydneysiders were kept informed with daily news updates; on the progress, of the problems that developed and were overcome, of the spiralling costs and the constant pressure to meet deadlines. Even if you weren't in some way directly involved, it was hard not to become invested in the whole project. Our Sydney was being turned into an Olympic host city.

The Olympic Stadium was completed and on March 6, 1999, hosted a world record rugby league crowd of 104,583. A number of events were staged at the venue to test it out ahead of the Games. My first visit there was for a NFL exhibition clash between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers in August 1999. There were more than 73,000 people there that day, but the vastness of the great concrete structure seemed to consume them. It was different for my next visit in September for the 1999 NRL Grand Final, when 108,000 fans filled the stadium, with my friends and I perched way up top in the back seats overlooking it all. I was also lucky enough to be there the following year as part of the world record rugby union crowd of 109,874 that witnessed an incredible Bledisloe Cup clash. The stadium was certainly living up to expectations - it was an enormous jewel in the middle of the almost completed Olympic precinct and it was a structure of which Sydneysiders could be proud.

In the lead-up to the Games, hordes of volunteers signed up to proudly help everything run smoothly. When the call first went out, the organisers were overwhelmed with the number of responses. The volunteers would go on to be universally acknowledged as one of the great strengths of the Games. A friend of mine told me he had signed up to be a volunteer driver and that appealed to me. The opportunity to pick up dignitaries arriving from all over the world and ferry them around my city in a brand new Holden Commodore seemed like a perfect way to participate. I signed up, passed a driving test and waited for the training to begin.

As the Games loomed, the world faced the threat that everything would fall over once the clocks ticked over to the year 2000. Computer experts had been racing around madly trying to convince software programs that 99 was not reverting back to 00, that it was in fact 1999 advancing to 2000. The New Year's Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour brought with them a sense of relief that the disaster had been averted and the acknowledgement that we were entering the biggest year of the city's 212-year existence.

My career path took a different direction early in 2000, when I became the Sports Producer for AOL Australia. It meant a dream opportunity to make a living covering sport, but it also meant my volunteer driving plans had to be shelved. My hopes of attending as many events as possible as a spectator had to be curtailed as well. I would be running the online Olympic content for AOL, but not attending anything as an accredited member of the media. Still, as the applications for tickets opened, I put my name down for a mixed bag of events across the two weeks, either to attend myself or pass on to my family if I was unavailable.

I was living in an apartment in Artarmon when the Olympic torch passed along the Pacific Highway early on the morning of September 15, 2000. In the muted light, crowds gathered two deep along the footpaths. It was almost impossible to be cynical about the whole thing, such was the excitement of being so close to something so big. Exactly 13,400 torch bearers were involved in the journey that started in Athens, visited many Pacific Island nations, New Zealand and travelled the width and breadth of Australia before snaking its way through Sydney to the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium, to be held that night.

The Opening Ceremony was Sydney's first chance to shine on the world stage at these Games. It was brilliantly done with plenty of colour, local music, thousands of children and enough tear-jerking moments to balance out the more cringeworthy ones. The highpoint of the night was the Olympic flame relay culminating in the hands of Australia's great hope for athletics gold Cathy Freeman. The mechanical cauldron paused for a painfully long time after being lit - most thought it must have been for dramatic effect, but we were to find out later that it very nearly didn't make its climb to the top of the stadium. A mechanic deep in the bowels of the stadium saved the day in that age-old fashion: give it a whack. The ubiquitous fireworks exploded over the sea of colour formed through the gathering of the various uniforms of the national teams. I watched it all on a television, grabbing photos as they came through to present in a photo gallery for the AOL audience.

My first taste of the Games came the following night when I took my brother and sister to the Sydney Football Stadium to watch Australia play Nigeria in a men's football preliminary match which was paired with Australia's women taking on Sweden. The crowd was incredible in its support for the home teams, the women managing a 1-1 draw while the men fell 3-2. It felt different to any other football game I had ever been to, the results seemingly not as important as just being there.

My first experience of the Olympic precinct came with tickets to a baseball clash between Australia and the Netherlands. Walking around the precinct was reminiscent of being at the Easter Show, which ironically, is now held there. Everyone was dressed up in their national colours, everyone had a smile on their face, people were almost overly friendly to each other. I was starting to recognise the almost tangible Olympic spirit. Unfortunately, all the good feelings didn't help Australia, which lost the game 6-4. Who knew the Dutch were any good at baseball? I would return for the bronze medal baseball game, tickets optimistically purchased in the hope that Australia might be playing, to see South Korea defeat Japan.

During the Games my working days started with switching the television on for the local coverage. Every day the coverage began the same way, with U2's "Beautiful Day" playing over a montage of classic postcard images of Sydney at its finest. Each day finished late with Roy and HG taking their satirical look at the day's events. In between I witnessed Ian Thorpe's dominance in the pool, Freeman's fulfilment of her enormous promise, Marion Jones dominating the track for a bag of medals later stripped because of her use of performance-enhancing drugs and the agonising moment Jane Saville lost a gold medal in the 20km walk when she was disqualified, just for running a little bit. There were highs and lows, incredible performances and world records smashed. Everywhere you looked there were highlights as athletes from across the world gave their all in the culmination of a lifetime of dedication.

Perhaps the highlight of my whole Olympics experience came in the form of a free concert held in Sydney's Domain on September 27. My friend and I arrived early and staked out a position on one of several cement blocks holding up flag poles located at the back of the Domain. We were a distance from the stage, but more importantly, close to the beer tents. As the afternoon progressed and band after band performed, the park filled to overflowing and our concrete island became a much sought after patch of real estate. We met people from all over the world, all over Australia and everyone was enjoying themselves right up until Neil Finn signed off with a signature Crowded House tune. The crowd dispersed through the streets of Sydney, singing and laughing, to continue their partying.

There was one more live sporting highlight left for me, with a friend offering me a ticket to the finals of the women's field hockey on September 29. Adorned in as much national paraphernalia as we could muster, including the stylishly worn Australian flag capes, we took our seats in the bleachers near halfway. Firstly we watched the Netherlands defeat Spain for the bronze medal, and I did know that the Dutch were very good at field hockey. Then Australia took the field against Argentina for the gold. Two first-half goals followed by another after the break sealed the victory for Australia, with Argentina scoring a consolation goal in the second half. It would be the only time in my life that I would witness an Olympic medal ceremony and the tears flowed as the Australian anthem played and our flag rose above the team members who were so visibly ecstatic. Field hockey is one of those sports where winning Olympic gold is the absolute pinnacle and you could see how much it meant to the Hockeyroos. It was also one of the first times I really noticed the strange phenomenon of the team collecting silver medals being a lot less happy than the team taking bronze. In team sports the silver medalists are often inconsolable having just lost the gold medal match.

The Games drew to a close, with Australia managing its most lucrative medal haul ever. Sydney really didn't want the party to end, and thousands again packed the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremony. More colour, more local music, thousands more children and many tears and then Juan Antonio Samaranch rose to give his closing speech.

There was a public buzz, no doubt spurred on by the media, that Samaranch would close the Games with the ultimate compliment. The packed stadium and millions of households listened intently as he spoke of the athletes, the organising committee and the wonderful volunteers. Then the words we were waiting for, greeted by a deafening roar; "I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever."

It was an affirmation that the incredible sports-filled party we had all witnessed and enjoyed was indeed appreciated globally. They were happy times for Sydney in a world that just 12 months later would change drastically with the 9/11 terror attacks. The innocent joy of those two weeks in the Sydney sunshine remain a reminder of what the world can do when united in the spirit of sporting endeavour.

I still, on occasion, attend events at the stadium, sometimes working, sometimes with my sons. The Olympic Cauldron has been relocated to the adjacent Cathy Freeman Park and converted into a fountain. In the paved forecourt of the stadium there are a series of metal poles painted to look like didgeridoos with engraved plaques on them listing the names of all the Olympic volunteers in alphabetical order. I occasionally look through the "As" and see my uncle and cousin representing the Arthur name. I look in the "Ps" and see my friend's name, he who still talks of his experiences driving dignitaries around Sydney.

I sometimes regret not playing a bigger part in the largest event ever hosted by my city, but I look back very fondly on everything I did experience at Sydney 2000. The Games. Our Games.