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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

And Then the Light Went On

How Cathy Freeman emerged as the final torch bearer and the planning and secrecy it involved.

September 25, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — The symbolic and pointed moment during which Aboriginal track star Cathy Freeman lighted the Olympic flame took months of planning and involved secrecy worthy of a spy novel.

And, though the climactic moment of the ceremony that opened the Sydney Games has widely been hailed as a moment of Australian reconciliation, the plan--as originally envisioned--was not for Freeman to light the flame.

The first idea was for Freeman to be the next-to-last bearer of the torch--and for her to ascend the steps at Olympic Stadium but then hand it off to "a young unknown kid," who in turn would light the flame.

Then again, that first idea was the working plan a very long time ago, said Michael Knight, president of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and the government minister for the Games.

In an exclusive interview with The Times, Knight revealed for the first time the details of how a "real cloak-and-dagger operation," as he called it, came to be.

Both Knight and John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, started from this premise:

The ceremony would pay special homage to women--this is the 100th anniversary of women's participation in the Olympic Games--while honoring Australia's Olympic greats and its indigenous people.

Freeman, 27, who won a silver medal in the 1996 Games in the 400-meter run and is favored to win the race in Sydney, was the obvious choice.

But the plans also were for the flame-lighting to be a spectacular technical achievement. Whoever lit the caldron would step into a pool of water, light a ring of fire--and wait, at first encircled by flame, as the caldron lifted the ring from the pool and then glided up to the top of Olympic Stadium.

Knight said he had no interest in anything that posed even the remotest risk of, as he laughingly put it, "incinerating Australia's best medal chance." Thus the idea for a young unknown.

But at a meeting of the two men in May, Coates said, "Why don't we get Cathy to do the whole bit?"

"That would be just perfect," Knight said he told him.

In May Coates met with Freeman, who was training in Los Angeles.

Knight said Coates told her she was under consideration to be one of about half a dozen torch bearers in the stadium, perhaps the final torch bearer. Given the pressure already on her--she and swimmer Ian Thorpe are unquestionably Australia's most famous athletes--was she interested?

Knight said, "Catherine smiled at him and said, 'I love pressure. I'd be very interested.' "

A few weeks later, Knight had to go to Europe for an Olympic meeting. He went a day early, stopping in London. By then Freeman had switched her training camp to Britain.

Knight showed her an artist's drawing of what the caldron would look like, and how it would be lit. "John and I really, really want you to light the caldron," Knight told her. "Now let me tell you all the reasons why you shouldn't.

"She was blown away," Knight said. "She said it was fantastic and she wanted to do it." OK, he said, swearing her to secrecy.

On the Saturday before the Games, after a dinner in Melbourne, Knight brought along a video of a "test firing" of the caldron. After showing it to Freeman, he said, "You still want to do it?"

Yes, she said.

Knight left the video with Freeman and her husband, Nike executive Sandy Bodeker.

On Thursday, Sept. 14, the day before the opening ceremony, Freeman came to Sydney. That night--technically, the next morning, between midnight and 5 a.m. Friday--she rehearsed the ceremony "a couple of times to make sure she was comfortable."

All but one of the other women who would also carry the torch around the stadium--including Australian swimming legends Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould--also rehearsed their roles. To maintain secrecy, their rehearsals were Thursday night--so they never saw Freeman at the stadium.

The exception was Debbie Flintoff-King, a hurdler who won a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Games. The torch went progressively from older Australian Olympians to younger. Flintoff-King turned out to be the next-to-last torch bearer--so she had to rehearse the hand-off to Freeman.

By 5 Friday morning, about two dozen stadium technicians also knew the secret. David Atkins, the ceremony's artistic director, also knew, Knight said.

But no one leaked it.

Meantime, there was one final issue. The "final and irreversible" decision that it would be Freeman lighting the flame "could only be made after she'd done it a couple of times and was happy," Knight said.

She was ready and willing, he said.

During the parade of nations at the opening ceremony, Freeman marched with the Australian team. Coates placed her near the front of the team and on an edge of the formation--to make sure that, as they went around the track, she was seen on TV waving to the crowd.

After circling the stadium, "John's job was to stand near her, so she could be spirited away in a dark moment in the stadium," Knight said.

"Anyone watching on TV or in the stadium would have said, 'There's zero chance of this girl lighting the torch,' because they'd seen her," Knight said.

"And," he said, reflecting with joy on the moment that Freeman lit the torch, surrounded by fire and water, "she was fantastic."

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