MITCHELL JOHNSON: What I learnt from Olympic athletes when I broke bread with them during 2000 Sydney Games

Mitchell Johnson
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Cathy Freeman and the men's swimming team shone brightly at the 2000 Olympic Games.
Cathy Freeman and the men's swimming team shone brightly at the 2000 Olympic Games. Credit: Supplied

“The winner is Sydney”.

I was only a boy in 1993 but that announcement was the beginning of the magic of the 2000 Olympics that would enthral us all seven years later.

It was a long wait, but we certainly weren’t disappointed. Sydney and Australia showed the world how good this place is and the athletes put up some of the great performances.

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I was 18 by the time show rolled around and, like many of us, have some unforgettable memories of that time. I was even lucky enough to be a little closer to the action.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to watch any of the events in person as I was at the cricket academy in Adelaide but I remember the hype and build-up to the Sydney Olympics being such a buzz.

Then we found out that an Olympic team would be staying at the Del Monte, our Adelaide residence, with us. We were pretty excited about that as it would give us a chance to rub shoulders with some elite athletes and we all had our guesses on which discipline it would be.

Some road and track cyclists had already stayed with us during the year. I can remember Shane Kelly and Sean Eadie and I’m sure I’ve missed some other big names.

Watching the cyclists in the gym was phenomenal. The weights they lifted, especially Eadie, was crazy and the stuff they did on specialised stationary bikes to build lactic acid in the legs was draining just to watch.

It must have felt awful doing it, but it was so inspiring to see the commitment from them all trying to achieve their goals.

Then we found out which team was coming to stay with us – the Russian gymnasts. They had world champions in that team and ended up dominating the Sydney Olympics in both the men’s and women’s events.

The amount of training they did during their two-week camp at the Del Monte was insane. We hardly saw them around.

The breakfast the Russians got every morning was bacon and eggs and all the good stuff. It was something we as young cricketers wanted so much but we were told by our trainers that the gymnasts needed to fuel and would burn it all off because they trained hard. Unlike us apparently!

It was hard to argue with their bacon and eggs because you could see by their physiques how super fit and ripped they were.

A few of us got the chance to hang out with some of the gymnasts, two of them being Olympic and world champions in Svetlana Khorkina and Alexei Nemov. Although there was a bit of a language barrier, we played pool and then some pretty good table tennis. It was a lot of fun and a great memory I’ll never forget.

It was a time of so many moments and memories, with swimming leading the way in the first week.

It’s hard to forget Eric Moussambani, or Eric the Eel, and his struggle to complete the 100m freestyle as he recorded the slowest time in Olympic history. He won his heat after both of his competitors were disqualified due to false starts and received one of the loudest ovations for showing courage in completing the event.

American Gary Hall Jr was made to eat his words after saying “we will smash them like guitars”. The Aussie 4x100m freestyle relay team played air guitars after Ian Thorpe touched the wall. The pure satisfaction was aimed directly at the American team. A 17-year-old Thorpe also broke the world record in the 400m freestyle, eventually becoming one of Australia’s greats.

DIGICAM 2862 Aquatics. Swimming.vjc000916.002.0011
M400x 100 freestyle final final...Swimming finals at Sydney Aquatic Ctr.
Pic Vince Caligiuri , Fairfax....The Australian team celebrate winning gold medal in record time , Michael Klim , Ian Thorpe , Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus
WAN ONLINE OUT
The Australian team celebrate winning the gold medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay. Credit: Vince Caligiuri/Fairfax

But for many and probably most, Cathy Freeman delivered Australia’s greatest performance of the 2000 Olympics in the 400m on the track.

The whole nation stopped to watch Freeman in her full running suit and 110,000 spectators got to experience something so brilliant and heart racing. It must have been so loud being there watching what she did in that 400m final. The pressure would have been through the roof and the emotion poured out of Freeman at the end of the race.

It’s one of those sporting memories that will always be in Australian hearts. Watching it again brings back the passion and joy of what the Olympics are about.

To me it’s a reminder of the hours put in, the dedication and the sacrifices that these athletes must make to give themselves a chance to win Olympic gold.

It’s a reminder to me that the Olympics are a must to watch with our kids - to share the passion and the ups and downs of supporting an athlete like we did with Freeman and Thorpe all those years ago. The legacy they leave behind really means something.

Sport is a big part of Australia and will continue to be. I’m looking forward to what Paris 2024 has in store.

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