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How the Sydney Olympics amplified First Nations voices on and off the track

Cathy Freeman’s win was a historic triumph and one of many watershed moment at the Sydney Olympics. Hear from Rhoda Roberts AO, who played a critical role behind the scenes of the 2000 games.

Georgia O'Connor

It's been almost 21 years since one of the most famous moments in Australian sporting history. On September 25, 2000, Kuku Yalanji woman Cathy Freeman beat Lorrain Grahame of Jamaica and Katharine Merry of Great Britain to win the 400m final at the Sydney Olympic Games. It felt like a personal victory for all Australians. The recent release of the ABC documentary Freeman last year, however, was a reminder that this pivotal moment was so much more than just a gold medal for Australia.

Former Head of First Nations at the Sydney Opera House and employee of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) from 1995 to 2001, Rhoda Roberts AO describes the moment as a triumph of “a connected history as a nation, black and white”.

“We all celebrated the games but it was Cathy Freeman’s win that really brought everyone to a standstill.”

But Freeman’s win wasn't the only watershed moment at the Sydney Olympics. The 2000 games also shone a critical spotlight on Indigenous excellence in the arts. During Roberts’ tenure with the SOCOG, she created vast space for Indigenous artists to support the storytelling of the Sydney Olympics in four roles including on the Creative Team for the Cultural Olympiad, Festival Director for the ‘Festival of the Dreaming’, Cultural Liaison for the SOCOG and Creative Director for the Sydney Opening Ceremony (‘Awakening’ segment).

“The Sydney Olympics was a time where we held the mantle, changed the gaze and amplified our voice across the arts. It was a turning point for Indigenous relations and visibility with a genuine emphasis on Aboriginal cultural protocols and observance.”

The Festival of the Dreaming

As Festival Director of ‘The Festival of the Dreaming’, the first of the four Olympic Arts Festivals known as the Cultural Olympiad, Roberts devised a policy for authenticity and Indigenous authorship and control. The program focused on theatre, dance, music, talks, film and writers program, visual arts, rituals and traditional craft practices.

The festival was a showcase of local, national and international Indigenous artists that sought to provide channels of support and allow artists to gain exposure, grow an economic base and tour both nationally and internationally. The budget allowed Roberts to commission the production of many new works, some of which are still touring 20 years later such as BINDJAREB PINJARRA, a dark, improvised comedy about WA’s Pinjarra Massacre Created and performed by Nyoongar and Wadjella (whitefella) actors. 

Other works included the story of a young singer Leah Purcell titled Box the Pony, the translation of one of the most studied texts of all time – Waiting for Godot – into the Bundjalung Language, and Fish by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company Bangarra. This piece of work came at a critical time for Bangarra who had very little financial support and are now a leading premiere dance company and Sydney Opera House resident company.

“The Dreaming created a groundswell and we knew audiences now wanted to witness  the cross expression and borders of traditional and contemporized work,” Roberts explains. But looking back, she questions whether this eagerness was just a byproduct of Olympic fever.

“I thought Australia was ready – but once the euphoria travelled to the next games, we were back trying to convince the nation and public service arts advisor that Australians needed to value the first peoples’ art and culture so it would remain part of the nation’s cultural fabric.”

Diversity and inclusion

“It is the only Olympics that did not have a protest,” Roberts says of her role as Cultural Liaison for SOCOG.

“I believed in inclusive approaches and so we worked with the late Mrs Isabel Coe at the Tent Embassy and involved her in daily talks with the media at Victoria Park where they had erected the camp. This meant that international journalists were able to cover stories with more depth and perspectives by engaging with the diverse politics of our peoples and their lives and the truth telling of their experiences. It really had an impact.”

... this could empower our youth and show the world we are still the oldest thriving culture...

Roberts also implemented approaches across the SOCOG that supported diversity and inclusion. This included the establishment of the Gamarada welcome team, a group of 21 men and women representing the clans of the Sydney basin who were in charge of welcoming duties across every element of the games – from greeting athletes, to opening exhibitions to welcoming spectators to the sporting events. Roberts and her team developed media training, designed uniforms and were able to employ a number of young people from the Redfern, Waterloo, Darug and La Perouse communities as drivers.

While she had already coined the term “Welcome to Country” in the 1980s, Roberts’ role as Cultural Liaison allowed her to take the acknowledgement to a higher level and implement it as permanent practice within the framework of our national protocols.

The Opening Ceremony

Roberts most publicised work was as the Creative Director for the ‘Awakening’ segment of the Opening Ceremony. She began work on the ceremony three years prior to the games, after being approached by producer and director Ric Birch who was an admirer of her work on the ‘Festival of the Dreaming’.

“It was a time when many of our communities were at a point of despair and were all thinking of protest due to the terrible situation in our country. It was the time of the release of a national report ‘Bringing them Home’, regarding the Stolen Generation – the community would always remember and lament all the children who would never be returned home.”

“Meeting after meeting I suggested our involvement should be from our culture and from our perspective, this could empower our youth and show the world we are still the oldest thriving culture and how we host visitors to our unceded territories. And once they embraced this, they would want to know our story, our truth and how Australia still perpetuated racism.”

Alone, Roberts travelled across the country and began conversations with communities from the Kimberly, Cape York, Torres Strait Islands and Arnhem Land in search of a song that emphasised and connected all First Nations people. After much talk and research, Roberts came across a flag song that was the key ingredient for the ‘Awakening’, as all nations have flag songs from their connection with visitors to this land over centuries and long before Cook.

“I sat on a beach in Numbulwar and talked with old man the late Mr D Nundhirribala and he sang the flag song Dhumbala. It was so ancient and raw. This signified the first time all our clans and nations had danced to the one rhythm. Stephen Page from Banagarra came on to choreograph and the late David Page did all the music for the 11 minute slot.” 

Over two thousand Indigenous performers were involved.

Accompanied by Worrora man, Donny Woolagoodja who designed the Wandjina, Roberts traveled to Arnhem Land to meet the lore men and women involved in the ceremony from the Top  End. Roberts describes the moment Woolagoodja presented her with the images of Namarali as an incredible teaching in humility. Of his artistry she says, “he is a man who carries his inherited birthright and obligations like an ambassador and in service of his people. The generosity of our cultural men and women was extraordinary”.

...for once the country looked at this young Kuku Yalanji girl from Far Northern Queensland as one of their own.

Of Cathy’s involvement in the Opening Ceremony Roberts cheekily says, “It was the best secret I have had to keep. I knew for six months that Cathy Freeman would light the cauldron and did not tell a soul”. Roberts speaks to Cathy’s exceptional strength of character in the lead up to the ceremony.

“She had so much to carry on her shoulders. I think of her focus. She worked late during rehearsals for the Opening Ceremony – on the night there was a slight hiccup and then she had to run the 400 metre a few days later. Wow. So disciplined and so innocent. It was her race and for once the country looked at this young Kuku Yalanji girl from Far Northern Queensland as one of their own. But she also ran for every blackfella across the country and most importantly her sister Anne-Marie Freeman who was born with cerebral palsy. She died of an asthma attack in 1990, three days after Cathy won her first gold medal at the Auckland Commonwealth Games. Cathy then declared every race was for her.”

“Cathy ran for her country that night and for her people.”

To celebrate the anniversary of Cathy’s 400m gold medal, and in collaboration with the National Film and Sound Archive and the Australian Olympic Committee, the race was projected on the Sydney Opera House sails in September last year.

Streamread & listen to more at the Opera House