It’s 2am on 26 August, 2000.
The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony is less than three weeks away.
A small group of AGL technical experts are gathered in the dark at Homebush Stadium. The pressure of a looming deadline is thick in the air.
The night sky is illuminated by a top-secret construction: the ring of fire that athlete Cathy Freeman would soon light to ignite the cauldron that towered over the Olympic stadium.
They’d been working exclusively on the top-secret project for more than 18 months, and it was close to being unveiled – but not without a heart-stopping glitch.
Bringing an ambitious idea to life
In a doco produced by AGL at the time, Michael Fraser, who was then Group General Manager Energy Sales & Marketing – and who later became AGL’s CEO – recalls a surprise approach from the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).
‘SOCOG came to us – they’d been around the world, in fact – and told us what they wanted to do,’ he explained.
A small group of AGL engineers began experimenting to see if the creative vision could be brought to life. They built a protype behind closed doors in an AGL laboratory in Camperdown, and showed it to the mastermind behind the opening and closing ceremonies, creative director Ric Birch.
‘When Ric saw that, he was sold,’ Michael said.
Fire and water: The messy logistics
How do you make a ring of fire emerge from a pond of water, then launch high into the sky to ignite an Olympic cauldron? How do you ensure the safety of our biggest Olympic hope inside the rising ring of flames?
The answer: hydrogen. The most common element in the universe, and shaping up to be a future fuel, hydrogen was used as the pilot flame, which would ignite an LPG flame on the torch. The entire apparatus was essentially just a gas/propane burner, similar to a cooking stove – but on a much grander scale.
Deadline looms large
With exactly one month before the big day, the structure was in good shape, but there was one crucial test that hadn’t taken place. It still hadn’t been tested while immersed in the cascading water.
By now, testing had been moved on-site to the Olympic stadium at Homebush. A lot of moving parts needed to come together quickly. Everything had to be functional and perfect – the flames, the valve opening sequence and timing, the hydrogen and LPG flow, and the artificial waterfall.
To the relief and satisfaction of the team and the ceremony organisers, the dry run – or, rather, the wet run – went perfectly.
Off without a hitch - almost
Fast-forward to 15 September. The big day had arrived. The team recalled that it was like going to the moon – in the sense that they had only one shot at it – and they had to get it very right.
Cathy Freeman emerged to light the cauldron. She took her position, lowered her torch and watched as flames took hold in a circle around her.
She stood, hand aloft, as the ring of fire began its grand ascension, leaving water cascading all around her. And she stood motionless when the conveyor ground to a halt.
What the video doesn’t reveal…
For a couple of minutes – some say two, others say four – Freeman’s earpiece is abuzz as frantic efforts unfold to find and fix the problem.
One of hundreds of vital sensors had tripped, and only an emergency manual override could fix it and get proceedings back on track.
The ceremony had been planned to the second. A pause for urgent conveyor repairs wasn’t on the agenda. There was a finite amount of gas on site to keep the whole thing alight.
While technicians scrambled, the orchestra kept playing, and instead of a dramatic finish as the cauldron became engulfed, the music tapered out and the final few minutes unfolded in silence.
Fortunately, those watching thought it was all part of the drama.
An official video of the event on YouTube doesn’t show the conveyor stalling, and Freeman’s face doesn’t reveal the drama unfolding in her earpiece.
A face-saving hunch
A last-minute decision by one of our employees to refill the standby gas bottles – just in case – may have saved the day, by providing enough gas for the ring of fire to continue burning while the problem was rectified.
Even years later, the team still can’t stomach the idea of re-watching that moment on video. It was all too close for comfort.
But speaking after the event, they can appreciate the mammoth achievement. The opening ceremony was a massive success: the best ever, according to many viewers.
Indeed, the International Olympic Committee’s then-president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, declared at the closing ceremony that he was ‘proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever’.
As one of the engineers recalls, ‘the feeling was sensational. And the whole world was watching.’
‘That scene of Cathy Freeman lighting the flame, that’s going to be one that Australians will remember and that will be something that AGL can associate itself with for a long time.’