Celebrated film-maker Bud Greenspan’s documentary about the 2000 Olympics in Sydney contains as its centrepiece an account of Monday, September 25, when more than 110,000 spectators - the largest crowd ever to watch track and field at the Games - packed into Stadium Australia to witness an extraordinary sequence of competitions.
"When the evening is over, many in the press will call September 25th the greatest night in track and field history," film narrator Will Lyman intoned in the film Gold from Down Under.
Lyman was certainly correct; and as the 20th anniversary of that night of sporting nights comes around, this press witness still believes it.
I say that despite having felt shivers at the London 2012 Olympics on Saturday, August 4 when Mo Farah - now Sir Mo - Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford won gold medals for the host nation in the space of 45 minutes.
When Farah charged down the finishing straight to take the 10,000 metres title - and what would be the first of four Olympic gold medals to date - the 80,000 crowd was producing a noise that made your ears buzz. Twenty-two minutes before Farah’s triumph in the fourth and last final of the night, Rutherford had earned an unexpected long jump victory; 44 minutes earlier, at 9.02pm, Ennis had duly delivered forecast gold in the heptathlon.
Four years earlier in Beijing, Britain had earned just one athletics gold thanks to Christine Ohuruogu in the 400m. No wonder home fans were dizzy with success.
In the only other final on the night, Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce retained her 100m title in 10.75sec, holding off silver medallist Carmelita Jeter of the United States, who clocked 10.78.
So yes, "Super Saturday" was great; but "Magic Monday" was the greatest.
The London 2012 phenomenon was primarily an evening of home celebrations. What took place in Sydney had a more international feel, albeit that with nine finals on the programme the opportunities for that were far greater. And the social reverberations of Cathy Freeman’s victory in the 400m went way beyond sport.
The pressure of expectation on this self-confessedly shy 27-year-old was of a different order to that which would be felt 12 years on by Ennis.
At the age of 16 Freeman had been the first Australian indigenous person to become a Commonwealth champion as a member of the 4x100m relay team at Auckland 1990. By the time she got to Sydney she had won three more Commonwealth gold medals, two world titles over 400m, and an Olympic 400m silver at Atlanta 1996 behind France’s Marie-José Pérec.
She was not only an athletic talent; as someone of Aboriginal descent, she was a potent social force. For both reasons, she was chosen to light the Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 2000, something she did despite, it appeared, briefly running the risk of immolation when the mechanism involved faltered.
Oliver Murray, deputy editor at news.com.au, recently sought to express the significance of Freeman’s involvement at those home Olympics.
"Twenty years ago, Indigenous Australians were fighting for an apology to the Stolen Generation," he wrote. "Just months before the Olympics 250,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians had marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge for reconciliation."
He went on to recall an 18th birthday party he attended on the day of the Opening Ceremony where he and other teenagers watched the action on television, and how there were one or two racist comments about the Aboriginal dancers, and some booing when Freeman was revealed as the final Torch bearer.
"You could just say this was a group of teens who didn't understand the importance of this moment," Murray wrote. "They didn't understand how racist it was to boo a prominent Indigenous woman during one of the biggest moments in her career.
"But that would be ignoring how much Freeman had to fight during her whole career."
Murray went on to recall how one Australian Commonwealth Games official had said she should have been kicked out of the 1994 Commonwealth Games when she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her 200m victory lap, and how as a girl Freeman, after winning races, would see the trophies awarded only to non-indigenous runners.
He also recalled that Freeman was warned in the run-up to Sydney 2000 that she risked being stripped of her medal if she celebrated with the Aboriginal flag.
"The 20th anniversary of Freeman's gold medal should rightly be celebrated this month as a moment that brought Australians together," Murray added. "But it should also be a reminder of how much more Indigenous Australians have to fight to be accepted in Australia. And that it's a fight that still continues."
Freeman held her nerve at that supremely testing moment during the Opening Ceremony. All that Australia then expected of her, having fulfilled her role as a living symbol of peace and reconciliation between the Aboriginal people and all Australians of more recent origin, was to deliver their first athletics gold medal at the Olympics since 1988.
In a piece carried by The Independent, Kathy Marks wrote of Freeman: "Her features appear in the newspapers almost daily, clenched in an expression of eloquent determination. A 70ft image of her adorns a skyscraper in Sydney’s central business district. Her every move is breathlessly charted; her most trifling injury is cause for national consternation.
"For the Australian public, Freeman is the face of the 2000 Olympic Games, and not just because she is a graceful and photogenic woman. She is an Aborigine who has succeeded against the odds and is held up as an inspiration to her community."
At the press conference she gave four days after the Opening Ceremony, Australia’s un-eager icon opened with the comment: "I don’t want this to be stressful…" The utterance set off a barrage of flash photography of such ludicrous magnitude that much of the audience and, thankfully, Freeman herself relapsed into laughter.
Ennis recalled after her London 2012 win that she and her then fiancé had dealt with all the expectation by making a joke of it. Perhaps Freeman’s naturally sunny temperament helped her here. Certainly an approach of a different nature appeared to tell on her French rival, Pérec, who complained bitterly about being "hounded" by the press and eventually returned home without defending her title.
Freeman commented: "I hope that you guys have been treating her with the respect she deserves. If she wants to be left alone, let’s leave her alone."
Asked how she would react as she settled on her blocks in the final, she became suddenly assertive: "It’s absolute focus," she said. "Relaxation at the same time, and you feel really, really aggressive. And you’ve got to have this absolute, total control. It’s finding the balance between being ready to go and at peace with yourself…
"It feels like everything around you is just going on, but because you are so focused it’s like a big jelly thing that’s full of colour and noise that’s going on around you. All I see is the starting blocks and the lane ahead of me."
Before the women’s 400m final electrified the arena the home crowd had already been roused by the efforts of Russian-born Tatiana Grigorieva, who had emigrated to Australia in 1997.
Only two vaulters cleared 4.55 metres - Grigorieva, for whom it was a personal best, and the world champion and record holder Stacy Dragila of the US. And at that point the Australian was ahead on countback. Ultimately the home athlete could not follow Dragila over what was an Olympic record of 4.60m, but it was still a landmark event for the hosts.
The men’s discus final, which had got underway 50 minutes before Freeman’s final, saw Lithuania’s Virgilijus Alekna defeat Germany’s defending champion Lars Riedel with a throw of 69.30m.
For her final, Freeman was wearing an all-in-one suit of green, gold and white that exposed only her hands and the oval of her face. It was as if she was encased in her own, focused world amidst the "big jelly thing".
She did not take a decisive lead until the field had reached the final straight, but once she accelerated there was never any doubt about her victory. She finished in 49.11sec, ahead of two athletes who ran their personal bests - Lorraine Graham of Jamaica, who clocked 49.58, and bronze medallist Katharine Merry, who recorded 49.72. Merry’s British compatriot Donna Fraser, one lane inside her in lane two, went from last to fourth in the final 50 metres, running a personal best of 49.79.
Afterwards Fraser, who had been training with Freeman in Sydney, was first to come over to the dazed figure who sat inertly on the track as the air vibrated with Australian celebrations. It was as if Freeman had at last become a free woman.
Her victory made her only the second Australian Aboriginal Olympic champion after Nova Peris-Kneebone, a member of the national hockey team that earned gold at Atlanta 1996.
Her obvious serenity in the final was partly explained by her reflections in the ABC documentary Freeman, which aired on the Australian channel last Sunday (September 13).
"I feel like I’m being protected," she said. "Those other girls were always gonna have to come up against my ancestors. I will win this. Who’s going to stop me?"
Recalling their words on the track, Fraser said with a laugh: "When we discuss it now Cathy says she remembered someone talking to her after the race, but she didn’t know who it was. I could tell that at the time. She was in complete shock!"
Millions of Australian television viewers had watched Freeman’s race on Channel 7, with commentary from Bruce McAvaney and Raelene Boyle, the sprinter who won three Olympic silver medals.
"My friend Cathy Freeman’s performance under pressure thrilled not only Aussies but a world that loved her," Boyle told insidethegames. "Watching her unveil the one-piece suit while maintaining her poise made me nervous, because it was added pressure.
"I was sitting next to another friend, Bruce MacAveney, in the commentary box. My heart was in my mouth. Bruce was jiggling and preparing for the race to start and his job of calling it to the world to begin.
"Cathy ran the race of her life, the crowd went nuts and as she ran towards the finish line Bruce said, 'What a performance, what a champion!' He motioned to me to say nothing and let the moment talk for itself.
"Then he motioned for a comment from me, and, 'What a relief!' came out unrehearsed but perfect.
"The crowd noise was like no other, and the lap of honour - the indigenous and Australia flags carried as she elegantly moved around the Stadium and on to her family on the fence right in the middle of the main straight."
Boyle’s identification of the key element involved chimed with the experience of Britain’s bronze medallist.
"Donna went over to her straight away," Merry told insidethegames. "Then I went over and told her how brilliant she was and how proud I was of her. We three had been racing each other since junior days.
"She never showed any emotion other than relief, in my opinion. There were no tears then, or through the press conference, and the medal ceremony. Clearly the emotion came out at some point but it wasn’t on display.
"She asked the officials if she could do a lap of honour - like she was going to get away with not doing one! I went with her…
"Even behind the scenes when we were with her family, her mum, there were no tears.
"In terms of my experience there was no getting away from the magnitude of the night. The tension and anticipation was huge. From arriving at the warm-up area it was electric. Even though there were so many good finals that night, everyone knew it was Cathy’s night!
"I went in believing I could win. I didn’t run for any other medal. The full magnitude of the night was hammered home to us all when we walked towards the Stadium and the noise got louder and louder and erupted when we walked in and the crowd saw Cathy.
"I tried to focus, but it was hard. It was then I realised that this wasn’t any other race, as you do try to think of it as you go through your routine that you have done dozens of times before. You had to take it on board and internalise it and take it for what it was - one of the biggest races in Olympic history.
"This made for more nerves, as I had one opportunity to deliver. But the nerves were controlled, as I was confident, and all the pressure was on Cathy. I have never experienced anything like it.
"The noise was deafening all the way around after falling silent for the start. The flash bulbs were off-putting, and every step I was conscious of being in a huge race. I executed my race perfectly and ran under 50 seconds for the first time and medalled.
"You will never get better than a home favourite delivering, it sends the crowd wild, and then you running your best race ever!
"Part of me wishes I was a spectator as I would have loved witnessing that Magic Monday. As a fan it must have been amazing. But I was very happy to occupy lane three!
"Cathy and I have spoken since about that night - she was so 'Cathy-like' and laid-back about it. It was great, amazing. The relief for her was huge. She always says she enjoys talking about it when we do. She says: 'There are only seven other people in the world that truly get that night'."
Nicole Jeffery, head of communications at World Athletics, covered Sydney 2000 for The Australian newspaper and vividly recalls the occasion.
"I doubt there has ever been an athlete who has carried more pressure to win in the Olympic stadium than Cathy Freeman," she told insidethegames.
"Cathy looked great through the rounds, completely controlled, and Australia’s hopes rose ever higher. But she still had to win on that one night of her life.
"A peculiar phenomenon had begun to manifest itself during her races. The crowds in the grandstands would stand up ahead of her as she circled the track, and take flash photos, creating a wave effect.
"When the gun fired in the final, the stadium just exploded and an astonishing wave of sound and light and energy and emotion seemed to lead her around the track. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.
"That race alone would have made for a great night of athletics, but every one of the nine finals was replete with intrigue and meaning."
The men’s 400m final, scheduled to start 15 minutes after that of the women, was delayed amidst the pandemonium.
But Michael Johnson wasted no time in becoming the first man to win consecutive Olympic 400m titles, clocking 43.84sec. This was another unique moment - the final individual race in one of the most illustrious of athletic careers, one which, between 1991 and 2000, encompassed world records in the 200m and 400m, eight world titles and four Olympic golds.
At 33 years and 12 days old, Johnson had also become the oldest Olympic gold medallist at any track event shorter than 5,000m.
The men’s triple jump final that had got underway 10 minutes before the women’s 400m featured another world record holder seeking to complete his Olympic story. At 34, Britain’s Jonathan Edwards knew what it was like to win global gold.
In 1995, his annus mirabilis, he had swept to the world title in Gothenburg, setting successive world records of 18.16m and 18.29m in the final. Earlier in the season he had produced a monstrous effort of 18.43m that was annulled for record purposes by a following wind that was the merest breath over the admissible limit of two metres per second at 2.4.
The following year, hugely favoured to win the Olympic title in Atlanta, he had performed with honour, jumping 17.88m, but had to settle for silver behind home jumper Kenny Harrison’s Olympic record of 18.09m.
After winning at his fourth Olympics with an effort of 17.71m, Edwards said: "I was just overwhelmed, I was on the point of crying on a number of occasions and had to choke back the tears. I couldn’t believe what was happening - this awesome arena, the Olympic Games, and I was the champion. It was almost too much…
"I thought that if I was going to win the Olympics it was going to be in Atlanta. To come here at 34 and get the gold has been fabulous."
The men’s 110m hurdles final carried a similar story in British terms - could Colin Jackson, the 33-year-old world record holder who had regained in 1999 the world title he first won in 1993, manage to go one better than the Olympic silver he had won in Seoul 12 years earlier? The answer was no. He was fifth as Anier García of Cuba took gold in 13.00sec.
That race was followed by a women’s 5,000m final that produced a thrilling conflict between Ireland’s European champion Sonia O’Sullivan, who had taken gold at the World Championships in 1995, and Romania’s Gabriela Szabo, winner of the world title in 1997 and 1999.
The Romanian eventually prevailed in an Olympic record of 14min 40.79sec, with O’Sullivan taking silver in an Irish record of 14:41.02 ahead of Ethiopia’s Gete Wami, who finished in 14:42.23.
A curious bridge between O'Sullivan and Freeman was Nic Bideau, a character who divided opinion but who knew athletics like few others.
A former journalist, Bideau had spotted Freeman's talent early and had helped guide her career from the age of 16. They later became lovers before the relationship turned sour and he began dating O'Sullivan, whom he later married and with whom he has two girls.
However, Bideau remained as his ex-girlfriend's manager until shortly before the Sydney Olympics, and Freeman competed knowing that he had launched a legal action against her for breach of contract. The matter was settled privately after a court hearing following the Games.
"In her autobiography Sonia - My Story, published in 2008, O'Sullivan alleged she was sworn at by Freeman, whom she said had once cut her wrists and smeared blood on a wall as the strain of the relationship with her former lover began to take its toll.
The drama on the track continued with a women’s 800m final in which the starring role, albeit in eventual bronze-medal position, was played by Britain’s Kelly Holmes.
Six weeks before the Games, Holmes - whose career had already been a long story of frustration and injury - tore a calf muscle. But she had managed to scrape through the Olympic trials on the basis of no preparation races and two track sessions. And at the age of 30 she felt like this was her final chance for Olympic glory.
Holmes went for it courageously, leading into the final bend before her training partner Maria Mutola of Mozambique came past to win in 1:56.64 and Stephanie Graf took silver in an Austrian record of 1:56.64.
But the Briton hung onto her podium place as she clocked her second-fastest time, 1:56.80. "This medal is like gold to me," she said. "Several times I have thought about quitting but I just had this little dream and for once one of my dreams has come true."
Four years later in Athens, two other little dreams - winning the Olympic 800 and 1500m titles, would also come true.
For the audience in Stadium Australia, and the millions watching all around the time zones of the world, it had already been an emotionally exhausting evening. And the final event - a men’s 10,000m containing the respective gold and silver medallists from Atlanta 1996, Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya’s Paul Tergat - hardly promised to finish the whole performance off in a minor key.
Fourth at the bell, Tergat waited until the start of the back straight before glancing to his right and then skipping out into lane three and starting a massive run for home which swiftly took him to the head of the race.
As he rounded the bend into the final straight, and halfway down that straight, it seemed the silver medallist of 1996, five-time World Cross Country champion, was destined to become the gold medallist of 2000.
But the smaller figure of Gebrselassie would not, could not allow it.
After a final sprint of such intensity it seemed briefly as if the laws of physics might bend and allow both men to win, the little Ethiopian, teeth bared, willed himself over the line first.
His margin of victory after 25 laps - 0.09 seconds. Less than the margin of victory in the men’s 100m final. The evening had finished with the quintessence of track competition.
"That race against my friend Paul Tergat was the favourite moment of my career," Gebrselassie told insidethegames. "You say you will be good friends, but you never allow him to win!
"Sometimes I am a bit guilty. Paul gave his all at the same time.
"I have always believed - without Kenyans, no Ethiopians; without Ethiopians, no Kenyans. We need each other.
"Believe it or not, all the records I have run have been because of Kenyans. Each time they take my record, I have to run to get it back again. That’s why I broke the 10,000m world record three times - to break it back."
When Gebrselassie arrived home in Addis Ababa his plane was escorted into Ethiopian airspace by MiG fighters. And the five-mile route to the city centre was lined with an estimated one million cheering well-wishers.
"People have never seen that kind of welcome in Ethiopia," he reflected. "I didn't realise it was sport. I thought maybe something had happened in my country."
The magic of that Monday in the Australian capital is something that spread far and wide, and has endured.