In 2004 the Olympics went home to Athens, where the ancient Games were born and the modern Games were revived in 1896.
Games organisers had been dogged by criticism since they won the bid. Many critics feared an epic Greek tragedy. There were constant construction delays, budget blow-outs and security fears. However, when the roof of the Olympic Stadium was finally in place, the negative turned to positive and the people of Greece delivered an amazing 17-day spectacle.
A record 201 National Olympic Committees participated, the first time the number of teams had crept over 200. There were more athletes, more female competitors and more events than ever before. Ahead of the Games, the first truly global Torch Relay had visited five continents, having been lit in Olympia and returning to Greece in time for a spectacular Opening Ceremony. The Olympic flame was lit by Greek sailboarder Nikolas Kaklamanakis, a 1996 gold medallist, a local lad who learned his sport on the waters near Athens.
The United States led the medal table with 35 gold medals, closely followed by an improving China, with 32 gold. Australia was fourth with 49* medals overall, including 17 gold, with Russia in third place. * Australia's total increased to 50 medals in 2012 when cyclist Michael Rogers was elevated to bronze in the road time trial following American Tyler Hamilton being stripped of the gold for doping.
Australia at these Games
Australia sent a record team of 482 athletes to Greece, second only to the 631-strong team that competed in Sydney. Sailor Colin Beashel, competing at his sixth Olympics, carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony.
The challenge for the team was to finish in the top five on the medal tally, as they had done in Sydney. The team exceeded even this lofty expectation, placing fourth behind the United States, China and Russia with 50* medals: 17 gold, 16 silver and 17* bronze. The 17 gold medals was a new national record, eclipsing even the success enjoyed at the home Olympics in Sydney (16 gold) and Melbourne (13 gold). It was also equal to our second best final placing on the medal table, beaten only by the third place achieved at Melbourne in 1956.
Such success ensured many memorable highlights. After 48 years of trying, the men's hockey team, the Kookaburras, finally won their elusive gold. The players enjoyed emotional celebrations after the final, in which Jamie Dwyer scored a brilliant “golden goal” in overtime to secure a 2-1 victory over The Netherlands.
The two most successful squads for Australia were the cyclists and swimmers, with each providing several multiple medallists.
Ian Thorpe's victory in the 200m and 400m freestyle gave him a total of five Olympic gold medals, more than any Australian athlete in history. Thorpe also won a silver medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay and a bronze in the 100m freestyle, taking his medal tally from two Games to nine, also an Australian record. Petria Thomas and Jodie Henry, whose three gold medals each - from one individual and two relay swims - represented the best results for an Australian woman since Shane Gould in 1972. Grant Hackett won his second 1500m title, overcoming serious illness to score a popular victory.
At the velodrome, Ryan Bayley won the sprint and keirin events to become our first dual gold medallist in cycling since Russell Mockridge in 1952. Anna Meares won Australia’s first women’s track cycling gold medal in the 500m time trial, while Sara Carrigan outstayed an excellent field to win the road race. There were also cycling victories for Australia’s men’s team pursuit and men’s Madison riders.
Other outstanding results included Chantelle Newbery’s gold in the women’s 10m platform diving – the only other Australian diving gold before her had been won by Dick Eve for plain diving in 1924. Shotgun ace Suzie Balogh became the first Aussie woman to be a shooting gold medallist when she won the trap event. James Tomkins and Drew Ginn, both former members of the Oarsome Foursome, became a terrific twosome in winning the men’s rowing pairs.
The list of luminaries is long from Athens – and does not just include medallists. Other performances of special note include the baseball team winning a silver medal, a first in the sport for Australia; kayaker Nathan Baggaley winning silver medals in the K1 500m and K2 500m (with Clint Robinson) in the same session; and a silver medal for Loretta Harrop in the women’s triathlon after leading almost all through the gruelling race and being caught within sight of the finish line.
Overall, Australia won medals in 14 different sports and disciplines – an awesome display of sporting skill and depth.
* Australia's total increased to 50 medals in 2012 when cyclist Michael Rogers was elevated to bronze in the road time trial following American Tyler Hamilton being stripped of the gold for doping.