<
>

Sydney 2000 Olympics inspired Patrick Johnson to even greater things

Of all things an athlete can claim, saying you're the nation's fastest person over 100 metres isn't the worst humble brag to have up your sleeve.

But Australian Patrick Johnson might not have ever achieved that mark, breaking the 10-second barrier in the process, had it not been for the Sydney Olympics and that incredible fortnight when the eyes of the world were trained on the Harbour City as it sparkled under the spring sun.

While running as fast as one possibly can is among the earliest and easiest joys any child can have, there are fewer tougher pastimes to truly reach world-class status than the art of sprinting.

Johnson was only a few years into that journey when the 2000 Olympics rolled around.

There would be many moments across those magical two weeks that would set Johnson on the path to Australian sporting history, a profile he continues to use today to promote reconciliation and Indigenous health.

"It was great but a bit surreal, too," Johnson recalled of his time settling into the Homebush precinct in 2000. "But athletics is always in the second week -- I wished they had it in the first week sometimes -- I had the 100, 200 and the 4x100 metre relay, so I didn't have that luxury that if my event didn't go well, I could just sit back and enjoy the Games outside of that. I always had that expectation of performance during the second week.

"So I was pretty much head down and focused -- you can take in a bit of the village for what it is and all the athletes -- but for me it was all about, 'I'm here and I've got a job to do,' and that's where it's a fine balance, as you can take in too much of the village and you lose track of what you're there for."

One thing Johnson wasn't going to miss out on, though, was marching in the Opening Ceremony. Being his first Olympics, Johnson and roommate Kyle Vander-Kuyp -- another Indigenous Australian athlete - -agreed they would soak up that experience.

And what an experience it would turn out to be.

"It was a significant moment in Australian history but also in the Olympic movement, and also for the athletes," Johnson told ESPN when asked about what it meant to him seeing Cathy Freeman light the Olympic cauldron.

"Cathy, of course, had that immense pressure that she was expected to win, regardless of whether Marie-Jose Perec competed or not; there was just so much pressure on her shoulders because everyone thought it was a given that she'd win.

"But the lighting of the cauldron, you don't see colour; you don't see creed; you don't see race; you don't see religion; you see a moment when you come together as one. But at the time, I was just overjoyed to see another Australian lighting the flame. And for Cathy to do that was really significant and really empowering for the whole country."

Johnson kept a low profile in the first week of the Games waiting for the athletics schedule to begin; the training done, his final preparations largely focused on making sure he was in the right place mentally.

Finally, the time came to step inside the packed Stadium Australia and experience a roar only a home Olympics can provide.

"Basically, you're in and out of the stadium for your race. And that's one thing, in hindsight, I would have loved to have soaked it in a bit more. But my inexperience, it being my first Olympics, I didn't know what to expect," he told ESPN.

"So for my first run, in Round 1 of the 100, my habit was always to hear my name called and then really start to prepare. But because it was a home Olympics and the crowd was so loud, there was such a huge roar, I didn't actually hear my name at all because the crowd saw the green and gold on the screen and just erupted. So I thought they'd actually forgotten to call my name, but the crowd had just drowned it out.

"So I ran that first race a little bit angry, which is probably good because it frustrated me a bit and really made sure I was switched on to run well. But the roar of the Australian crowd overpowered the announcer -- that was pretty special in hindsight."

Johnson would end up making the quarterfinals of both the 100-metre and 200-metre sprints, while Australia's 4X100 metre relay team was disqualified in the semifinals.

Given it was his first Olympics, Johnson could have been forgiven for walking away content with those results. But there were certainly feelings of an opportunity lost.

"That was my wish [to make the semis], so I was very disappointed," he said. "And I think that was just my immaturity because I'd only been in the sport for three years virtually, and to get to your first Olympics, running the 100 and 200, especially at a home Olympics, I probably expected a lot more.

"Of course, making the semi or the final was what I had aimed for, so I was super disappointed. But I learned from it all; I learned that you can't always go in and expect that you'll succeed. If it was easy, everyone would do it."

Having the chance to run on the same track as some of the sport's greats did inspire something greater within Johnson, however, and help to set him on the path to the Australian and Oceania 100-metre record of 9.93 seconds less than three years later.

"Yeah, it just showed me what my potential was," Johnson said. "Getting to those rounds (the quarterfinals), you had some of the [sprinting] greats like Maurice Greene, Ato Bolden and Frankie Fredericks; it just showed me from that the limited time I had been in the sport, I can do something special here [in the future].

"I didn't dream of making the Olympics. I only started [sprinting] when I was 24 years old; I didn't really know what track and field was before that. So I was on a steep learning curve and that continued in Sydney; I had to go through the disappointment of not quite performing how I would have liked."

Seventeen years on from his record-setting run in Japan, Johnson still retains the Australian and Oceania 100-metre records. His status as a trivia question is safe, for now.

But far more important is his work with the Deadly Choices organisation, which promotes Indigenous health, and acting as the chair of the Indigenous Advisory Committee for the Australian Olympic Committee.

"It's a promotional health campaign which is all about empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to live healthier lives, for their families, for their communities and for themselves," Johnson said of Deadly Choices. "So it's really an opportunity where we use sporting personalities and clubs as role models, through the NRL, AFL, netball and rugby union."

Johnson is also positive about how Australia's leading sporting codes have each upped their game when it comes to recognition of the country's First Nations people, although he says there are still a number of areas that require greater attention.

"We've made some great steps in that process, especially recognition, acknowledgement and reconciliation. We've still got a long way [to go] in a sense of creating those pathways and making sure there's opportunities within organisations [for Indigenous Australians].

"I chair the Australian Olympic Committee's Indigenous Advisory Committee, so we advise the AOC on how they should look at their Indigenous engagement and we're looking at a Reconciliation Action Plan for those guys. But it's also about creating pathways and opportunities where we have representation within the Athletes' Commission, the AOC itself and other sporting bodies.

"So with Olympic sports, we've only had 52 Indigenous Australian athletes ever since the Games first started. We've had only one Indigenous athlete at the Winter Olympics. So that's part of my role as the chair of the Advisory Committee, to look at ways where we can engage and create awareness but also create pathways.

"But it's also not tokenistic; there's no point having it if you're just going to tick a box. It's got to be meaningful and that's where you do your cross-cultural awareness training, and you've got to understand the history to create a future that we all want. Especially with the Black Lives Matter movement now, it has created the space where people have to talk about it. They can't sweep in under the table, especially when you talk about racism or bullying."

As with thousands of other Olympic athletes, there was no medal for Johnson in Sydney. But the experience of those magical two weeks remain particularly special. From the roar of the crowd to a touch of disappointment, Cathy's cauldron and, of course, her 400-metre gold, that entire fortnight helped shape the remainder of his sprinting career.

Just as it does the role he fills within Australia's Indigenous community today.