Today is 15 September 2020. I am leisurely wandering around the deserted ANZ Stadium at the Sydney Olympic Park, reminiscing memories of my partaking at a mega-event on this day 20 years ago.
To deepen my journey down the memory lane I am dressed exactly the same way I was on that day when the area around me was humming with activities steered by thousands of people – locals and visitors from different parts of the world. All of them gathered to witness the grand opening ceremony of one of mankind’s greatest sporting events: the summer Olympics.
I was physically present that day as a volunteering Protocol Manager for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and running like a chook around the VIP enclosure inside the stadium to welcome, look after, and manage the protocol and relationship issues of the IOC members, Olympic officials, sporting celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world. They included Kings and Queens, Heads of States, Crown Princes, Presidents and Prime Ministers. While very tired and stressed, the thrills and the excitement I experienced that day and for the next two-weeks can be stamped as the most illustrious fortnight of my life.
Two decades have passed, its golden memories still shine in my mind as does legendary Aussie sportsperson Cathy Freeman’s gold medal for winning the 400m sprint.
Organising the medal presentation ceremony for Cathy Freeman remains an unforgettable occurrence. I escorted the presenters from the IOC and the Federation to Cathy, introduced them and briefed her on the protocol issues. The gold medal to be presented was in my hand then and I felt so close and so far away from an Olympic treasure. (Later I briefed this episode to a journalist from India who subsequently did a story on me for his reputed publication – one of the nation’s highest-selling dailies – highlighting that though India didn’t win any medal in Sydney, a person of Indian origin at least could lay hands on it.)
My duty at the main Olympic venue allowed me to be present for all the events that took place there – from the opening and closing ceremonies to all the athletics and the football final but all these bygone years what frequent in my mind more than the sporting excellences are the engagements with several well-known people of high status. Under normal circumstances, I would perhaps never have been able to stand close to any of them.
Some from the long list are American statesman Henry Kissinger, rock star Kylie Minogue; fashion queen Ellie McPherson; many sporting legends like boxer Muhammad Ali, golfer Greg Norman, Cameroon footballer Roger Milla and Kenyan long distance runner Kip Kenyo; and several royals from King Constantine of Greece, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, Princess Anne of Britain, Prince Albert of Monaco, Prince Felipe of Spain, Prince Frederic of Denmark who used bring with her Aussie girlfriend Mary Donaldson whom he married four years later in Copenhagen and Prince Dipendra of Nepal who unfortunately executed himself the following year after killing other members of his family.
Eton College educated, Dipendra talked to me often about life in Australia, India and Nepal. When I got the news of the tragic incident it was hard for me to believe what that young man had in his destiny.
While talking about royals, let me share a funny incident. One afternoon I met an African guy wrapped ordinarily in a long white robe. Not knowing who he was I asked him politely “Sir what do you do”. His reply, “I do nothing, I am the King of Swaziland” embarrassed me that moment but makes me laugh now when think about it.
I vividly recall my first one-is-to-one meet with IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch who had then just returned from home in Spain after attending to his wife’s sudden death and funeral. I could see the sorrow in his eyes. When I expressed my condolence, soft-spoken Samaranch acknowledged, then thanked me for our services as a volunteer and presented the official IOC pin for the Games.
A very precious retention from the Games is my time with 20-year-old Chelsea Clinton who was then representing her father President Bill Clinton. Mother of three, Chelsea today is a successful author and a health advocate, but on that day she mesmerised me with her modest and down to earth behaviour which I didn’t expect from the American President’s daughter. She kept me busy asking many curious sport-related questions for which I had to run around to find the right answers. One such question was how heavy is the mallet used for the hammer throw competition. It was also fascinating to know her experience with India where she travelled earlier that year with her father. Her eyes were filled with exhilaration when she narrated the tale of sighting the Royal Bengal Tigers at the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan.
Reminiscing these memories gives me the pleasure, pride and sense of a lifetime achievement. I still hear the roars and the cheers from the stadium, visualise myself in the Olympic blazer and tie ushering a VIP or a IOC member to their seats or sorting out the football medal presentation, it being chaotic as medals of three types – gold, silver and bronze had to be organised for the three teams each comprising of almost fifteen players.
I keep this memory alive by often visiting the Sydney Olympic Park, taking the dust off from my blazer, looking at the souvenir pins that I received from the guests, writing memoirs, telling stories to friends and family and at quiet times cherishing the glorious twinkles with “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi, Oi, Oi” banging my ears.