Sydney 2000: 20 years on Sydney’s Olympic legacy brings comfort and hope in turbulent times

Twenty years ago, Catherine Freeman, a proud Indigenous Australian athlete, lit the Olympic Cauldron marking the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 2000, a Games that celebrated not only sports achievement but also unity, forgiveness, resilience and innovation.

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Two decades later, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts our lives, Sydney’s Olympic legacy and its post-Games venues are keeping that spirit alive by offering a safe space for comfort and hope.

The 430-hectare Olympic Park is seeing record visitor numbers. In April alone, 336,000 people flocked to the vast area to walk, cycle or just relax in the place which kickstarted this millennium’s first Olympic Games.

It was here that Catherine Freeman sent a clear signal by lighting the Olympic Cauldron: Sydney 2000 was going to use its platform to unite, heal and energise the country. And the rest of the world.

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Wearing a full green and white bodysuit, she delivered a sensational victory of a 400 metre race in front of an ecstatic crowd of spectators. The iconic moment is seen by many as a starting point for her country’s national reconciliation, leading eventually in 2008 to a symbolic apology by Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the country’s Indigenous peoples. 

John Coates, Australia’s President of the National Olympic Committee, Vice-President of the IOC and the Chair of the Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission says Sydney 2000’s anniversary should be more than a celebration of sport history. Rather, he says, it is an opportunity to reflect on the role of the Games and other sport events that could help to unite the world.


“We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sydney’s Olympic Games at a very challenging time for people around the world and for the sports community itself. My hope is that this anniversary will remind us all wherever we live of the Olympics’ power to unite and energize, to overcome divisions and inspire positive change for people from all backgrounds and nationalities. That was the Sydney dream and that is the dream for Tokyo 2020 and future Games too.

“For Tokyo, as it was in Sydney, the athlete will be at the centre of all our efforts.

Sydney 2000 really was the athletes’ Games. All our planning – the Olympic Village, the transport, the arrangements at the venues, was done with the athletes front of mind and we consulted with the Athletes’ Commission to make sure we got all this right.

“Importantly in these uncertain times, Tokyo’s focus on the athletes’ wellbeing has been magnificent.”

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Sydney’s venues certainly help to keep that dream alive.

The Olympic Park, the most prominent post-Games landmark, was created by redeveloping industrial wasteland. Despite a difficult period after the Games, the Park is now known for its thriving cluster of world-class sports, entertainment and business facilities.

Hosting 230 businesses, the Park welcomes a daily community of some 21,600 people and more than 14 million visitors every year. Its 2030 masterplan, which aims to rejuvenate the Park’s legacy, commits to zero carbon and is expected to create more than 30,000 jobs.

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The Games also saw the creation of new environmentally responsible facilities across Sydney and widespread conservation efforts. These conservation efforts are an internationally recognised part of Sydney’s legacy.

Every aspect of the venues and Olympic Village was built with environmentally responsible materials, while the Games were used to transform many surrounding areas of the city. Some 160 hectares of waterways were cleaned and 180 hectares of industrial wasteland were reclaimed.

Renewable energy was also used extensively across the Park and Olympic Village. The Sydney SuperDome still features one of Australia’s single largest photovoltaic (PV) energy systems. On-site solar power generation has supplied close to 1 million kilowatt hours into the grid, even while powering the Park’s pathway lights and other infrastructure.

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Construction of the Park also established Australia’s first large-scale urban water recycling system, which continues to save 850 million litres of drinking water per year. Known as WRAMS, it recycles water from sewage and stormwater to supply toilet flushing, fountains and irrigation across the Park and a neighboring suburb.

Apart from its social and inclusive power, the Games helped catalyse the Sydney economy, positioning the city and country as a major tourist and business hub.

It was the first time that a host city had used the Olympic Games to facilitate longer-term business opportunities. A newly created government-funded programme, Business Club Australia (BCA), was a networking initiative to leverage the Olympic spotlight and strike new trade and investment deals.


Despite teething problems, the programme generated AUS260 million (USD 191 million) in committed investments within a month of Sydney 2000’s closing.

And by the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the BCA had generated a total AUS 1.7 billion (USD 1.3 billion) in trade and investment deals. It had held 270 events around the world, established new business relationships between Australia and foreign countries, and increased awareness of the diversity and capability of Australian industry.

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Over the next decade, Australia repeated the formula multiple times at other sporting events such as the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. It also promoted Australian expertise to Chinese companies at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Connecting with society was another vital element of the Sydney Olympic Games. Some 40,000 volunteers became a “Games Force”, and had their names preserved on volunteer poles in Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. Many of these volunteers have gone on to work in subsequent sporting events, such as the Melbourne (2006) and Gold Coast (2018) Commonwealth Games.

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Their involvement guarantees that Sydney anniversary celebrations are well attended. In 2010, some 18 million people celebrated the 10th anniversary. And to celebrate the 20th anniversary this year, Australia’s National Olympic Committee has launched a social media campaign #MySydney2000 asking the public to share their memories from the event as well as images and thoughts about what the event represents for them today. The friendships, connections, and social spirit remain alive and well.

And as the world prepares for Tokyo 2020, a Games to be held in extraordinarily complex circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney’s legacy will be a reminder that the most important aspect of the Games is indeed its spirit.

“The pandemic may require Tokyo 2020 to be simpler,” Coates says. “But when it comes to overcoming adversity and celebrating humanity, Tokyo will be one of the greatest Games ever.”

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