Philip Barker

Tokyo’s Olympic Flame is set to go on display next week at the Olympic Museum. Organisers hope it will raise morale after the unprecedented postponement of the Games until 2021 in the same way that the Torch Relay 20 years ago transformed the attitude towards the Games in Sydney.

In early 2000 there were many negative headlines in Australia. There had been public outcry over how tickets for the Games were sold. Ticket brochures were said to be misleading and members of Sydney’s Organising Committee (SOCOG) were hauled before a State Inquiry in New South Wales. This identified "management failures" in the organisation.

There was also tension between the Australian Olympics Minister Michael Knight, President of SOCOG, and his chief executive Sandy Hollway.

On an international scale, the fallout from the Salt Lake City scandal was still reverberating. Six International Olympic Committee (IOC) members were expelled.

Australian IOC member Phillip Coles was questioned about a trip made to Salt Lake City but was not expelled, though he was asked to stand down from SOCOG.

His fellow Australian, IOC vice-president Kevan Gosper, also found himself in the eye of a storm when the Olympic Flame was lit in Greece.

The first bearer of the Flame is always Greek, but in 2000, it was decided that the second runner would be Yianna Souleles, an Australian teenager of Greek heritage.

Cathy Freeman stands in a ring of fire at the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
Cathy Freeman stands in a ring of fire at the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

Then, shortly before the ceremony, the Hellenic Olympic Committee invited Gosper’s 11-year-old daughter Sophie to take part. It is not unusual for such last-minute invitations to be made, but what angered many was the announcement that Sophie was to replace Souleles as the second bearer.

The official Sydney report recorded that: "Her choice created controversy back in Australia, where it became front-page news. In the wake of a tempestuous year for the IOC, it was perceived to be a favour given to an IOC member's family."

At the time it seemed an omen when clouds forced the use of a 'reserve' Flame, lit in the days before.

The Torch was supposed to reflect "the egalitarian spirit of Australia, the commitment to Olympism and the motivation of innovation."

At the handover in Athens, Greek IOC member Lambis Nikolaou insisted: "I am convinced that the Olympic Flame, which has managed to preserve symbolic character through many difficult circumstances , will be able to once more breathe faith into our hearts and revive our love for the timeless principles and values it enshrines."

Before touching down in Australia, the Flame was taken through Oceania and headlines soon became more positive. "The 12 Pacific countries gladly greeting the Torch were alike in the heartiness of their welcome", said the official report.

The Flame began its 100-day journey on Australian soil at Uluru.

Lowitja O'donoghue, leader of the Aboriginal Development Council said that "the traditional owners and community were very much part of this."

Australia’s Governor General Sir William Deane arrived to greet the Uluru family, guardians of the land.

The first runner was 1996 hockey gold medallist Nova Peris, who ran without shoes.

"It was a sign of respect to my people," Peris said. "My ancestors never wore shoes. They’ve given me the strength to get where I have today and that is why I chose to run barefoot."

Her example was followed by actor Ernie Dingo when he received the Flame. Later, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the first indigenous Wimbledon champion, was accompanied by an escort of children from the Mutitjulu community. Part of the Torch Relay was not televised as the route took runners through sacred lands.

After this emotional start, the cavalcade headed to Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Naoko Imoto received the Olympic Flame on Tokyo 2020's behalf ©Getty Images
Naoko Imoto received the Olympic Flame on Tokyo 2020's behalf ©Getty Images

The Flame was transported through the yellow waters of Kakadu National Park by Aboriginal elders Bill Neidjie and Minnie Alderson.

At Drouin, indigenous boxer Lionel Rose, world featherweight champion in the late 1960s, carried the Flame watched by his mother Gina.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service took the Torch into the outback and marine biologist Wendy Craig-Duncan swam with an adapted Torch at the Great Barrier Reef.

Con Verevis, an Australian of Greek heritage who began the 1956 Relay in Cairns, now did so again in Atherton, Queensland and at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Ron Clarke ignited a cauldron as he had done 44 years before.

"I will never forget the excitement of 1956 when I ran into the MCG," he said. "The lighting of the cauldron made me proud to be Australian."

A huge crowd watched as an Australian rules football match followed. It was a reminder that Australia’s sporting heritage extended beyond the Olympic programme.

Ron Barassi, a legendary figure in Australian rules and legendary rugby league captain Wally Lewis also carried the Flame.

From cricket, runners included Allan Border, Dennis Lillee and Steve Waugh. It was rumoured that the illustrious Sir Donald Bradman might even light the final Olympic Cauldron. This seemed unlikely for 'The Don' was 92 years old and did not court publicity. Even so the Relay passed his birthplace in Cootamundra and visited the Bradman Oval in Bowral.

Eight days before the Opening Ceremony, it arrived at Government House in Canberra where Sir William was waiting with special guest Nelson Mandela.

At the end of each day, there had been a "Community Celebration" culminating in the lighting of a special cauldron.

The Olympic Flame proved popular after arriving in Japan earlier this year ©Getty Images
The Olympic Flame proved popular after arriving in Japan earlier this year ©Getty Images

When the Flame reached Sydney, traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge ground to a standstill as singer Olivia Newton-John and tennis star Pat Rafter brought their Torches together with the Olympic rings behind them.

Swimmer Samantha Riley enjoyed a more solitary experience when she appeared on the roof of the Opera House whilst the crowds gathered below on the day of the Opening Ceremony. Darkness had fallen by the time the Torch arrived at Stadium Australia for the grand finale.

The identity of the cauldron-lighter remained a closely-guarded secret. Marathoner Steve Moneghetti and basketball’s Andrew Gaze were both mentioned.

Then came the stadium announcement: "Celebrating one hundred years of women’s participation in the Olympic Games."

Betty Cuthbert, triple gold medallist at Melbourne 1956 in the sprints, had suffered from multiple sclerosis and entered in a wheelchair accompanied by Raelene Boyle. Fellow athletics champion Shirley Strickland and swimming superstar Dawn Fraser, both champions in Melbourne, Shane Gould - triple gold medallist in 1972 - and 1988 hurdles champion Debbie Flintoff-King. Then, the final bearer stepped out of the shadows.

To the accompaniment of Te Deum by Hector Berlioz, Cathy Freeman stood beneath a waterfall and stooped to ignite a circle of Flame.

The ring was then to ascend a hydraulic shaft in what Ceremonies executive producer Ric Birch called a "triumphant finale as the cauldron lifted skywards." The ignition sequence had been as secret as the identity of the final runner. At rehearsals with Freeman, held at 2am to avoid onlookers, there had been no difficulties.

It was a different story on the big night  Freeman was left holding the Torch as the ring of fire stalled. "It definitely felt like I had to give the impression that everything was fine," she told Australia’s Channel 7 television network earlier this year.

The sequence was to have taken seven minutes. Technicians worked frantically and finally the mechanism lurched into motion after what seemed hours to Opening Ceremony staff.

Even at the last, Sydney’s Flame was invested with drama.

The Sydney 2000 Torch Relay even included a visit to the Great Barrier Reef ©Getty Images
The Sydney 2000 Torch Relay even included a visit to the Great Barrier Reef ©Getty Images

Clarke insisted that the Sydney’s Torch Relay had "brought the nation together" and the negativity of the preceding months was largely forgotten.

The Games were eventually acclaimed as the "best ever" by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Tokyo 2020 took the theme "Hope Lights Our Way" for its Torch Relay to embody its philosophy of giving encouragement to communities affected by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. The lighting ceremony itself was held in Olympia on the exact anniversary of the disaster.

The developing coronavirus crisis forced a scaled-down ritual, though the Flame was still kindled from the rays of the sun according to tradition. Enthusiastic crowds saw it depart from the village of Olympia, but little more than 24 hours later, the whole cavalcade ground to a halt in Sparta after Hollywood actor Gerard Butler attracted huge crowds prompting health concerns. Even the Athens handover was held in an almost empty stadium.

Instead of a delegation from Tokyo, 1996 Olympic swimmer Naoko Imoto, working in Athens as chief of education at the United Nations Children's Fund’s mission in Athens, received a late call-up to participate in the ceremony.

During last month’s virtual IOC session, Tokyo 2020 promised that the Flame would be put on display for a limited time at the Japanese Olympic Museum in Tokyo. There will be added precautions to ensure social distancing and visitors will have to book in advance.

Back in March, when the Flame was briefly put on display at Sendai railway station in the Miyagi prefecture, the crowds were such that the exhibition was cancelled over concerns about the spread of the virus.