Of the 10 Olympics Games I have covered, Sydney in 2000 was simply the best, in every respect. The organisation, the ambience, the weather, the facilities, and above all the friendliness of the Aussies themselves. Every Olympic visitor was greeted with a cheery "G'day" and made to feel welcome by volunteers who were genuinely proud to be hosting a family show. Of course it helped that everyone spoke English but for sheer getting-it-togetherness Sydney surpassed any previous Games. It is one of the world's great sporting citadels and unlike in many other cities where the Games have been staged in half-empty stadia, their fans had a true appreciation of what they were watching, and if they did not always know the nuances of taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling or artistic gymnastics, what the heck, they cheered anyway. And the beach volleyball on Bondi was a sight to behold.
The Millennium Games were also a turning point in Olympic history, for none better represented the emancipation of women's sport and an ethnic race than the iconic performance of Aborigine Cathy Freeman in winning the 400 metres. It was a symbolic victory before a crowd of 102,254, the largest ever at a Games, marking her country's 100th gold medal. Britain went gold-prospecting, too, from the moment cyclist Jason Queally won on the opening day to modern pentathlete Steph Cook and super-heavyweight boxer Audley Harrison on the last, via the oar-some Steve Redgrave's epic fifth gold medal in successive Games. Eleven golds in all, Britain's best for more than half a century. Beijing, where government money seems no object, may put on a flashier, more expansive extravaganza but they will have to go some to beat Sydney's style.
SILVER: Barcelona & Athens
Virtually a dead heat between Barcelona (1992) and Athens four years ago. Barcelona was memorable because it marked the return of an apartheid-free South Africa and a united Germany. For atmosphere and friendliness it ran Sydney pretty close – well managed, with a true translation of the Olympic ethos and another golden Games for Britain. Chris Boardman reinvented the bicycle wheel and Linford Christie, who four years earlier in Seoul had been lucky to escape a ban after overdosing on ginseng tea, won the 100 metres at 32 while 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell memorably reminded us that "Essex girls do come first."
The return of the Olympics to Athens in 2004 was equally special. There was a warmth that you only get from familiarity and the Greeks offered a traditional hospitality, taking the flame from Sydney with great panache, despite the construction and financial hiccups along the way. The last lick of paint had barely dried on the refurbished Olympic Stadium before the Games began but in the end they were superbly orchestrated by Gianna Angelopoulos, a diva millionaire of striking beauty and political astuteness, who is now the country's foreign minister. She had fought hard to win the Games for Athens, leaving Rome's scheming Primo Nebiolo licking his wounds, and had to be brought back to run them by the Greek government when it was clear that progress was so far behind schedule that the International Olympic Committee was starting to panic. But once the starter's gun sounded, everything ran smoothly, as did Britain's Kelly Holmes, left, who, at 34, first won the 800m and then sealed an historic double success in the 1500m. We watched her run with a calm tactical awareness and finish on both occasions in devastating fashion. We also saw a new sporting force start to emerge, China giving us a taste of what is likely to come in Beijing when Xian Liu, a 21-year-old from Shanghai became the first Chinese man to win a track gold. Athens was hot and hectic, but you departed feeling that the Olympic Games had come home, if only briefly, and many of us thought that this was where they deserved to stay.
They say you always remember your first. Mine were Tokyo in 1964, and they remain etched in the consciousness as the last "pure" Olympics, untainted by drugs, terrorism, boycotts, body-searches or brown envelopes. No one played politics and perhaps for the last time competitors seemed to reflect the Olympic ideal that it is not so much the winning, but the taking part. Baron Pierre de Coubertin was surely smiling down benevolently.
I still sometimes hum the jingle that woke us every day: "Good morning, Tokyo, happy to be greeting you." These really were a happy Olympics, especially for Britain, who collected 20 medals with long-jump golds for Lynn "The Leap" Davies and the original Golden Girl, Mary Rand. Plus outsider Ann Packer's shock triumph in the 800 metres and the poignant moment when the wife of the walker Ken Matthews dashed on to the track to embrace him as he crossed the line.
In Tokyo there was no hype or hassle. I was wandering through the Olympic Village – it was possible to do so then – when hurtling around the corner on a bike came a large American with the biggest thighs I had ever seen. He swerved to avoid me and fell off. Thus I became the first man to put Joe Frazier on the floor. Fortunately he was not hurt or looking for a fight. "Sorry man," he grinned as he picked himself up and rode off to become Olympic heavyweight champion and subsequently the world heavyweight champion. What fun – and Games – they were.
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