Twenty years ago today, the Sydney Olympic Games enraptured the world with what is widely regarded as one of the most thrilling nights in athletics history.
‘Magic Monday’ elicits so many special memories for track and field fans: from Stacy Dragila to Michael Johnson, from Haile Gebrselassie to Paul Tergat. Rarely, if ever, has the sport experienced an evening of such rich emotions.
Yet the abiding memory of that night was of Cathy Freeman, the poster girl of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, charging to 400m gold amid of blizzard of flashing camera lights to ignite a euphoric and deafening crowd of 112,000 inside the Olympic Stadium.
From the day the athletics schedule was announced, many anticipated that Monday 25 September 2000 – the fourth day of the track and field programme – could provide something special. The women’s 400m would naturally take centre stage, but with nine finals that night (three field and six track), the sport was set to be showcased in the best possible light.
It did not disappoint.
From the first final of the night, the inaugural Olympic women’s pole vault, the crowd was captivated. Former rodeo rider Stacy Dragila took gold with 4.60m, while Russian-born Australian Tatiana Grigorieva earned silver courtesy of a personal best of 4.55m.
The second final of the night witnessed victory for Virgilijus Alekna, the bodyguard to the Lithuanian Prime Minister, as he outfought Germany’s four-time world champion Lara Riedel to take gold in the men’s discus.
At 8pm local time the men’s triple jump featuring Jonathan Edwards got under way. And 10 minutes later it was time for the women’s 400m final – featuring Freeman, complete with her iconic body suit.
Aged 27 at that time, the indigenous Australian was in the prime of her career. Four years earlier at the Atlanta Olympics she had taken silver behind Marie-Jose Perec of France, but since then had elevated her status to world No.1. She secured back-to-back world 400m titles in 1997 and 1999 and was unbeaten over the one-lap sprint in 2000 in the countdown to the Sydney Games.
That, however, brought a suffocating pressure. And the expectation only increased after she won her heat, quarter-final and semi-final in increasingly quicker times.
The gun fired and the decibel level soared. Freeman did not have matters all her own way. She entered the home straight third behind Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham and Great Britain’s Katharine Merry.
But midway down the home straight, she burst into the lead, her trademark long stride eating up the ground as she opened up a decisive margin on the field.
Within what seemed like a few metres, the race was over and Freeman could enjoy her coronation as Olympic champion, stopping the clock in 49.11 – to defeat Graham by a margin of 0.47.
The relief was palpable. Moments after crossing the finish line, Freeman shut her eyes and let out several long sighs. She sat on the track and pulled off her shoes as if overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of her achievement.
Freeman may have been the highlight, but there was no anticlimactic feeling for the remainder of the evening. Fifteen minutes after Freeman’s gold, Michael Johnson destroyed the opposition in the men’s event to retain his Olympic 400m title in 43.84.
In the next track final, Cuban Anier Garcia defeated world champion Colin Jackson and Olympic champion Allen Johnson to take the men’s 110m hurdles gold in a slick 13.00.
Gabriela Szabo and Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan then battled out a titanic women’s 5000m final while the penultimate track final of the night saw Maria Mutola came from behind down the home stretch to win a high-quality women’s 800m for Mozambique.
The night reached an almighty crescendo with the greatest men’s 10,000m final in history to conclude the perfect night.
Monday in Sydney was simply magic.
Gebrselassie triumphs over Tergat in 10,000m
One week before he took to the start line for the men’s 10,000m final, Haile Gebrselassie was far from confident he could mount a successful defence of his Olympic crown.
The charismatic Ethiopian had been troubled by a long-standing inflammation in his right achilles tendon, and when he arrived in Sydney he described himself as just “75% fit”. Besides the injury concern, he also faced the formidable threat of long-term rival Paul Tergat, who was determined to halt a trend of three successive global 10,000m silver medals behind the all-conquering Gebrselassie.
“I did not expect to win the race,” Gebrselassie recalls. “The problem was that my achilles was bad – it hurt.”
Three days earlier, Gebrselassie has successfully navigated a route to the final via the heats, but on the night of the men’s 10,000m final it was impossible not to be lifted by the extraordinary atmosphere generated by the sell-out crowd.
A little under two hours before the start of the race, Gebrselassie removed himself from the warm-up track to watch the women’s 400m final from the athletes’ seating area inside the Olympic Stadium.
“That was special,” he adds. “Everybody wanted to see that race. The crowd was amazing. But the whole evening was super special; Jonathan Edwards, Michael Johnson, the American pole vaulter Stacy Dragila. People today still talk about that night of athletics. It was exceptional.”
In a race which, predictably, became a battle between Ethiopia and Kenya, five athletes were in contention at the bell, but it was the long-limbed Tergat who struck first, surging to the front with a wicked acceleration down the middle of the back straight.
Gebrselassie responded, but entering the home straight Tergat was still in pole position, holding a three-metre advantage.
“When I watch the video back of that final 100m, I still think, did I win?” says Gebrselassie. “I honestly did not know what (strength) I had in my body that day. That gold was from God.”
Centimetre by centimetre, the Ethiopian closed on the Kenyan, but only in the final strides did it become apparent Gebrselassie had timed his sprint to perfection, diving for the line to win gold in 27:18.20. The gap between Gebrselassie and Tergat – 0.09 – was smaller than the winning margin in the men’s 100m final two nights prior.
“When I glanced to my left just before the finish line, I saw Paul disappear from my left eye,” says Gebrselassie. “I knew then I had got the race.
“Without question, that was one of the greatest nights of athletics,” he adds. “To have 112,000 people in the stadium was amazing. Twenty years on, winning gold in Sydney is still the greatest moment in my life.”
Szabo holds off O'Sullivan over 5000m
For Romanian middle-distance athlete Gabriela Szabo, the Sydney Olympics represented her opportunity to seize gold.
Four years earlier at the Atlanta Games, the then inexperienced 20-year-old had missed out on her ultimate goal. Szabo surprisingly exited the heats of the 5000m, suffering what she described as simply “a disappointing day”, but she bounced back to take 1500m silver behind Svetlana Masterkova.
Between Olympics, Szabo won back-to-back world 5000m titles and, equipped with a fearsome kick finish, felt ready to deliver inside the Sydney Olympic Stadium.
“From the moment I woke up that day, I was very calm,” says Szabo. “I did not feel any nerves. I don’t know why, but the day of my 5000m final I felt sure I was going to win.
“I looked around at some of my opponents and they looked nervous. When I entered the track that night, I knew it was going to be my evening.”
Earlier, Szabo had watched the women’s 400m final from the warm up track. It was hard not to be inspired.
“I remember it well,” she adds. “It was a surprise to see her run in the special suit. I recall she (Freeman) looked very focused. It was such a great result for her and a great moment for Australia too.”
When she entered the stadium and saw the colossal crowd, Szabo admits she felt a “special kind of energy”. Given her calm, confident nature, she felt nothing could go wrong over the 12-and-a-half-lap distance.
She had often relied on her devastating kick-finish to secure race wins, but Szabo changed her tactics that night in Sydney, revealing the clear-eyed thinking of a champion.
Szabo recognised that the pace had slowed with 700 metres remaining, so she hit the front to steadily crank up the pace every 100 metres. As the lead bunch reduced in numbers, Szabo then also produced a tactical wildcard by launching a blistering strike for home with a little under 300 metres remaining.
Sonia O’Sullivan responded and as they entered the final bend the much taller Irishwoman loomed on Szabo’s shoulder. Yet the Romanian, while respecting the challenge, remained confident.
“I think, maybe I surprised Sonia with when I kicked – that was my secret,” says Szabo. “I remember looking up at the TV and with 20 metres to go, I knew I had it because I could see Sonia losing energy.”
Szabo crossed the line in an Olympic record of 14:40.79, having covered the final lap in 60 seconds – a little under a quarter-of-a-second clear of O’Sullivan.
“It was amazing,” says Szabo, who five days later earned the bronze medal in the 1500m “I will never forget that race, I will never forget Sydney and that wonderful night of athletics.”
Triple jump gold at last for Edwards
Four years earlier at the Atlanta Games, Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards was expected to be crowned Olympic champion in the men’s triple jump.
At the previous year’s World Championships in Gothenburg, Edwards had taken the discipline to a new realm with a massive world record distance of 18.29m – a mark which, 25 years on, remains intact.
However, in the crucible of Olympic competition, Edwards met his match in Atlanta in 1996 and had to settle for silver behind USA’s Kenny Harrison.
Despite his standing as the world’s leading triple jumper, Edwards faced enormous pressure leading into the Sydney Games. He had earned silver and bronze at the 1997 and 1999 World Championships respectively, and at the age of 34 he knew Sydney was his last realistic chance to win Olympic gold.
“Going into that competition I was as confident as anybody could be having not won a global title for five years,” says Edwards. “On each occasion I’d gone in as world No.1 and with the capability of jumping farther than anybody else, but I just didn’t deliver.”
To ease the enormous pressure he felt ahead of the 2000 Olympics, Edwards tried to trick his mind into thinking the outcome did not matter. But if the pressure was not intense enough, his biographer Malcolm Foley rang up the night before the final to tell him that around the time he was scheduled to take his first jump, Cathy Freeman was likely to be introduced to the crowd ahead of her 400m final.
“That made me think, ‘okay, this is going to be a fairly tumultuous evening’,” says Edwards.
Vying for attention with so much superlative track action was always going to be demanding for Edwards but, unusually, he was happy to watch some of the other events unfold between jumps.
“It was such a remarkable night in Sydney and I found myself flipping between my competition and taking in the what was happening. I did, in part, enjoy that. There was such an atmosphere, I would have been fighting a losing battle to completely distance myself from that.
“With hindsight, I think it came as a welcome distraction to be part of such a wonderful night of athletics.”
Edwards opened with 17.12m, putting him in fourth place at the end of the first round. He took a brief lead in round two with 17.37m, but was bumped back down to second place after Russia’s Denis Kapustin leapt 17.46m a few minutes later.
But in round three, Edwards delivered his long-held desire to strike Olympic gold with a leap of 17.71m, ultimately finishing 24 centimetres clear of Cuba’s Yoel Garcia.
“It was not a pretty performance,” admits Edwards. “I would describe it as ‘winning ugly’.”
Having finally ascended the podium at his fourth Olympic Games, Edwards’ Olympic gold medal validated his lengthy career in the sport. And he feels the performance was more special because he was part of ‘Magic Monday’.
“It was such an incredible thing to be a part of,” says Edwards. “I think people in Great Britain can get a bit myopic about Super Saturday (at the London 2012 Olympic Games) being the greatest night of athletics, but I don’t think anything can compare to Magic Monday. For a night of world-class athletics, you won’t surpass it.
“For Cathy to win facing that amount of pressure was pure theatre,” he adds. “I will never forget her medal ceremony. The way the crowd sang the anthem and continued to sing her name, I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
“It was the single most amazing moment of that night. It was just breath-taking.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics