To really understand the interest and pressure on Australia’s athletes at the Sydney Olympics, you have to go back and look at the numbers. Not the times, or the heights, or the weights or distances, but the television ratings.
Grant Hackett had an inkling of what was to come the year before. His enlightenment would take place at the dentist, where he flicked through the pages of a sports magazine while he waited to have his teeth cleaned.
Celebrity had already come to Hackett by that stage, whose arrival as heir to the Olympic throne of Kieren Perkins put him sharply in focus ahead of a home Games. Their rivalry and Perkins’ stature as somewhat of a national treasure would ensure the build-up to their 1500m freestyle final was second only to Cathy Freeman’s 400m masterpiece on the track.
“It was funny,” Hackett recalls. “One of the things I remember, which blew me away, I was in the dental surgery and there was a sports magazine. I decided to open it up and have a browse and what was in there was the ratings for 1998.
“There was the AFL grand final, NRL grand final … but I think the most-watched sporting event was the race between Kieren and I at the Commonwealth Games, the 1500m freestyle.
“It was around 3.1 million or something and I was like … what? I couldn’t really fathom that. It gave me a bit of perspective as to what was about to happen. I read a stat about how many people watched our 1500m final at the Olympics and something like 95 per cent of TVs were tuned to that race.
“To think you are involved in something like that … you’d never imagine in a million years that people would be that interested in a 1500m freestyle race.”
With all of those eyes on him, Hackett would proceed to “unseat an icon”, in the words of Dennis Cometti, as Australia hit pause to watch the 20-year-old from the Gold Coast go to the wall and beat the twice-Olympic champion with a bold, front-running performance.
It was an epic triumph, an ascension, and he found enough strength in his arms to smash the water with delight upon victory as Perkins leaned over to congratulate him on his gold.
It was also on the verge of never happening at all. Struck down with illness and mentally drained as he struggled through the early days and disappointments of the meeting, Hackett managed to find a way to get himself up for the fight. Now we know he had a little help along the way.
The search for answers
Hackett knew something was amiss in the months leading up to the Games, which also happened to coincide with a resurgence in form from Perkins as he threw everything he had at trying to win a historic 1500m three-feat.
Blood tests showed he was suffering from glandular fever, although his coach Denis Cotterell never passed on the diagnosis, something that remains a mystery to Hackett to this day. So, in search of answers, he was back to the dentist once more.
“I knew I just wasn’t as strong as the year before. That was a problem. This was around trials, so four to five months out. I knew my speed wasn’t great … I always like to feel easy with the speed. That was a concern the whole preparation for me but my endurance was good and I was there for the 1500m,” Hackett says.
“I tried everything. I got my wisdom teeth out because I was getting sick all the time. There was a heap of things that added up to me not being 100 per cent. My glands were up but I thought it was my teeth.”
The impact of the illness manifested at the worst possible time. Hackett made the finals of the 200m and 400m but swam well below his best and failed to win a medal. To add insult to ailment, he was dropped from the 4 x 200m relay after a sluggish heat swim, an omission which still cuts him deeply.
Hackett was a famously focused competitor but trying to compute what was happening was stretching his resolve to breaking point. Physically, he was suffering and the flow-on effects were potentially fatal to his 1500m prospects against a resurgent Perkins.
“I was gutted through all of that. It was shattering. But I couldn’t sit there and dwell on that. I had to refocus for the next day, so you can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself,” he says.
“But I did feel sorry for myself. I was in tears that week back in the room when it was all happening. There was a lot to deal with emotionally to get myself right for that main race. You just try to do all you can. But at this point it’s not about the physical anymore. It’s the emotional.”
The team manager at the time, Alan Thompson, was among those who feared that the biggest meet of Hackett’s career was about to be a wipeout. A plan was hatched to smuggle in Hackett’s family for a pep talk and the wheels were set in motion.
“He was struggling health-wise. He’d spent a couple of days in bed and we were really worried about him,” Thompson says. “He was really close to his mum and dad and his brother, so we thought it was a good idea to see if that could happen.
“I went to Glenn Tasker, who ran the swim meet, we talked to FINA, some of the guys from the organising committee … we were lucky because we were all close. It just worked itself out … we had to push but pushing with people we knew.”
The reunion was kept secret, partly because of the security issues surrounding bringing in non-accredited visitors to secured areas and partly because team management didn’t want anyone to know Hackett was having serious health issues.
“We got them into the pool. The Athletes’ Village was policed by the IOC so that was more difficult to do. Our contacts were around the pool so that’s where we went. We didn’t tell anyone or say anything. And we also didn’t want anyone to know that he was struggling,” Thompson says.
“You could see the change in him. He was just in bed and under the weather.”
Hackett now remembers that meeting as a sliding-doors moment during his Games. He walked back out determined to lift himself off the canvas and claim the gold medal he had been dreaming of since he first swam in the Sydney Olympic pool as a 14-year-old.
“I can remember (media manager) Ian Hanson organised me to see my family in an office. That really helped me, seeing my family rather than just talking on the phone. That really put things in perspective for me and it was a real turning point,” he says.
“You can take family and friends for granted when things are going well. It’s in those situations when you really need that love and support and perspective and I saw that as a massive turning point in terms of my overall mood and psyche.”
Thompson remembers another meeting that he felt helped Hackett take charge of his fortunes again that week; a rev-up from motorsport legend Peter Brock.
“One of our athlete liaisons was Brocky. I’d come from seeing Grant in his room, taking him some medication maybe, and I bumped into Peter right out the front,” Thompson says.
“I told him I thought Hacky could do with a bit of spirit lifting at the moment, he likes fast cars, Holdens, so Brocky went and saw him as well. It might have been a combination of a couple of things.”
Focus to win
A switch had been flicked in Hackett’s mind. Now he thought only of finding a way to beat Perkins, who looked as if he was timing his final Olympic run to perfection.
“The real challenge was that Kieren was swimming the fastest he had been swimming in six years. He came to play and I wasn’t playing that well. The stars were un-aligning for me,” Hackett says.
“You wouldn’t change it for the world now. The icon of the sport was getting back to his previous best and it’s a fairytale for me now because of the outcome. But it could have been a nightmare.”
Perkins had put the writing on the wall with a sub-15 minute heat to qualify fastest, with Hackett almost 10 seconds slower going into the final. Yet from the moment he walked from the marshalling area to the blocks, Hackett could feel the life and energy starting to surge at last.
“This is the weirdest thing I know about myself and I know this doesn’t work for everybody. Because every time I walked out, there was a sense of freedom. I loved it. I enjoyed that moment more than any other moment other than winning,” he says.
“That’s why on most days I was able to get the most out of myself even in an adverse situation. I was good in that pressure and I thrived. That day was no different. I loved my name being called out and getting up on the blocks. I was ready to fight.
“At that point, nothing else matters. The talk from the media, the build-up … it doesn’t matter. Nothing is going to help you now except yourself. I perceive that as a sense of freedom.”
Swimmers can extract vast quantities of information from their first few strokes in the water, or in the case of a 1500m, the first few laps. Hackett felt some of his speed return and his mood and confidence soared accordingly.
“I felt better than expected. I got a lead on Kieren that was easier than anticipated. So when I got that lead and it didn’t kill me, that was when I thought ‘I’ve got a chance here’. I was back in the fight and that’s what happened in those first two laps,” he says.
Hackett established a two-second lead that he carried to the 1000m mark. Perkins was hovering, swimming defiantly, and many expected the old lion to mount one final charge as the race entered the final third.
Instead, it was Hackett that went further ahead, breaking Perkins’ heart despite the defending champion being roared on by the Sydney crowd. It would be the culmination of a meet where everything went wrong until the moment it went so spectacularly right.
“If you look at the video, I look up at the scoreboard because I’m like ‘let’s make sure’. I slowly looked across my name, saw the number one and I filled up really quick,” Hackett says.
“It was every childhood dream, every up and down, that feeling of winning at a home Olympics. Not even the great Michael Phelps had a chance to do that. It was that good and then some.”