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The night Cathy Freeman was smuggled into the Olympic Stadium hidden under a blanket

‘My role with Cathy at the Sydney Games is what I am most proud of,” says John Coates, AOC president, IOC vice-president and one of the world’s most influential sports officials.

This is a powerful admission, considering Coates played a pivotal role in winning Sydney the 2000 Summer Olympics and guaranteeing they were “the best Olympics Games ever”– an honour bestowed by then IOC chief Juan Samaranch – as well as negotiating an $88.5m legacy for the AOC, nuclear-proofing its financial future.

Coates’s statement, made 20 years after Sydney 2000, refers not only to his role in choosing Cathy Freeman to light the Olympic cauldron but ensuring they were the “Athletes Games”, highlighted by Freeman winning a gold medal in the 400 metres 10 nights later.

His choice of Freeman and his subsequent clandestine manouevring to maintain the secrecy sums up Coates, the inner champion of social justice and the outer Machiavellian politician.

To some, he is a Coates of many colours but, essentially, he is a child of Sydney’s inner west. He still lives there. A product of Homebush Boys’ High school, it is significant that when his mother died this year, aged 96, his former schoolmates surrounded him at the small wake.

He possesses a barely disguised distrust of the social elite, especially Melbourne’s privileged class and often fails to resist a devilish, occasionally dangerous, need to provoke them.

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So, it wasn’t tokenism when he chose a 28-year-old Indigenous athlete who grew up in a marginalised community in Queensland, elevating her high above the packed stands at Homebush’s Olympic Stadium to ignite the cauldron.

Coates initiated programs where Olympic athletes travelled to Indigenous communities and, in 2015, changed the AOC constitution “to recognise the heritage, culture and contribution of our nation’s First People and to give practical support to the issue of Indigenous recognition through sport”.

Freeman smiles as the cauldron rises.

Freeman smiles as the cauldron rises.Credit:Andy Zakeli

But it’s the shrewd negotiating where he identified Freeman five months before the Opening Ceremony and maintained the secret with the clever subterfuge that his enemies identify.

Michael Knight, the NSW Minister for the Olympics and SOCOG president, acknowledges Coates’s political skills, saying, “He has been the best politician in this country for decades.”

He should know – the Coates-Knight duo made many of the major decisions, including the choice of who lit the cauldron.

Coates’s recall of the negotiations has Knight wanting to select a younger athlete, akin to Ron Clarke lighting the cauldron at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

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But he acknowledges Knight argued that because it was the centenary of women in the Olympics, all those entering the stadium with the torch should be women.

Coates argued there were three women who were right for the task of lighting the cauldron – Susie O’Neill, the gold medal-winning swimmer, Rochelle Hawkes, a double gold medal-winning captain of the Hockeyroos, and Freeman, who was a two-time world champion. As it transpired, all three won gold medals in Sydney.

Coates says, “I said I preferred Cathy because hers was the biggest sport on the Olympic program, plus the Indigenous aspect. I thought awarding the honour to an Aboriginal athlete would send a wonderful signal to the world.”

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“I recall Michael’s misgivings over Cathy, saying, ‘She might be scared of fire’.”

However, Knight claims he didn’t initially promote Cathy because he knew Coates had a deep sense of history in honouring past champions and a strong obligation to protect the current Australian team. “To suggest someone whose own performance might suffer from the pressure, while also elevating her above other athletes in the national team was something I thought John would struggle with,” he said.

Coates says, “We never settled that night. I didn’t have his agreement. I asked her to do it, knowing that if she agreed, you could hardly take the honour off her.”

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It was over dinner in an Italian restaurant, Il Piccolino, in Los Angeles on May 21, 2000, that Coates sounded out Freeman and her then husband, Sandy Bodecker, a Nike executive, about the opening ceremony.

“I called her and said, ‘Can I take you to dinner?’ They didn’t know why they were there. I told them, ‘I’d like to sound you out about lighting the cauldron’.

“She said, ‘Why me? There are lots of great Australians’. I then justified it in the same way I had with Michael Knight, with a big emphasis on her being Aboriginal. I teared up a bit. I thought it was a big deal for our Games and our country.

John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee.

John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee.Credit:Peter Braig

“I did express some concerns that lighting the cauldron might undermine her performance but she simply said, ‘John, I like pressure. That’s when I perform at my best.’

“As we walked outside to our cabs, she sidled up to me and said, ‘John, I’ll understand if you change your mind.’ I teared up again.” Asked whether this accords with her memory, Freeman later said: “That is a very accurate recount.”

Coates says he phoned Knight from the US and he agreed with the need to keep it secret.

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Knight followed up with a meeting with Freeman after she moved from her Los Angeles base to the outskirts of London for training. “I wanted to give us an out and also give her an out,” he said.

“I took a train to Windsor Castle one Saturday afternoon and met her in a railway refreshment room, where we had a cup of tea. I said, ‘I know John Coates has raised the prospect with you, but I want to show you sketches of the cauldron and explain the ring of fire. You’ve got to be comfortable with it.”‘

The front page of the Herald celebrating the opening night of the Sydney Olympics.

The front page of the Herald celebrating the opening night of the Sydney Olympics.Credit:SMH

Knight then met Freeman when she returned to Australia.

“I went by cab to an outer suburb of Melbourne and took a video of the test of the cauldron with me. I showed it and said, ‘Are you up to it?’ She said yes.

“Mind you, we weren’t sure the cauldron was up to it,” he said, a reference to the stuttering ascent of the ring of fire, lit by Freeman at ground level. It stalled on its journey upwards to meet the cauldron at the top of the Olympic stadium

Knight credits Coates with maintaining the subterfuge. “He really fooled everyone,” he said. “Cathy wanted to march with the team at the Opening Ceremony, so John put her in a prominent position in the early rows of the athletes on the crowd side.

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“When the lights went out, he snuck her out.”

Coates agrees, saying: “We whisked her away when no one was watching.”

Knight reveals Freeman was “spooked” after the first rehearsal, saying, “She wanted to do it a second time.”

This meant converting Knight’s staff into world-class spooks for a midnight rehearsal.

None of the other torchbearers, other than the second last torchbearer, Debbie Flintoff-King, the 1988 400m hurdles gold medallist, knew Cathy was lighting the cauldron.

“My chief of staff, Michael Deegan, drove Cathy to the rehearsal and his best mate drove Debbie. Deegan booked Cathy into a Sydney hotel in his name,” Knight said.

“He rang the head of security at the stadium to say he was coming out and that he would show him his accreditation and guarantee that another figure in the car, hidden under a blanket, was also accredited.

“Deegan told the head of security he would just have to take his word for it. ‘You’re not going to see the person’, he said.

“So even the cops on the checkpoint didn’t know who was under the blanket.”

Following the Opening Ceremony, Coates, who was living in the Athletes Village, broke his routine to travel to the AOC’s corporate entertainment headquarters in The Rocks.

A large VIP crowd was in attendance, headed by Prime Minister John Howard.

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Typically, Coates could not resist the temptation to make anyone who opposed the choice of Freeman feel uncomfortable.

He revealed that one of the few people who had ever mentioned Freeman as final torchbearer was Senator Amanda Vanstone.

“I was sitting on a plane with her and she said, ‘John, you have to choose Cathy to light the Olympic cauldron’.”

Addressing Howard, Coates said, “So, Prime Minister, one of the Ministers in your Government was an early supporter of the decision.”

Read the Herald’s Best Games Ever series here.

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