A man swimming a butterfly stroke in an Olympic pool

Australia's Olympic stories

Australia's Olympic stories

From Toyko 1964 to Rio 2016
 Johnny Milner

The Olympics has always been as much – if not more – about the human stories, as well as the sporting achievements. It continues to play a major role in shaping Australian cultural identity.

In the year of Tokyo 2021, our Summer Olympics curated collection spotlights some of Australia's greatest Olympic moments from 1964, the last time Tokyo hosted the Games, to 2016.

The Apex of Glory

For a nation with a relatively small population, Australia has performed well at the Olympics, frequently placing in the top 10 medal counts. Such successes have brought a degree of confidence – not only in the form of collective pride, but even in terms of our standing within the world and how we measure up against other countries.

The apex of Australian Olympic glory was the Sydney 2000 Games – what many people regard as the most successful Olympics of the modern era. Not only did Australia perform brilliantly as the host nation with the country's best overall medal haul (consisting of 16 gold, 25 silver and 17 bronze), but the Games also provided an opportunity to project an image of ourselves to the outside world as a successful multicultural as well as sporting nation.

Our Summer Olympics highlights curated collection features two clips from the Sydney Games: the wonderful gold medal in the three-day eventing and Cathy Freeman's historic – and iconic – 49.11 second dash in the women's 400m sprint final:

Cathy Freeman wins gold, 7 News, 26 September 2000. NFSA title: 520865.

Cathy’s famous run is so firmly etched into the national psyche, it was chosen as the first Australian film ever to be encoded on synthetic DNA, a technology that will ensure that a record of her victory is preserved for thousands of years.

Athletic sacrifice and political statements

Looking through the curated collection, what also becomes clear is that many of the stories behind our greatest Olympians tell of athletic sacrifice, hardship – and even tragedy.


Upper body shot of the three athletes on winners podium. Peter Norman with Tommie Smith and John Carlos on right with gloved fists raised in a salute
Peter Norman wins the silver medal at the Mexico Olympics 1968. NFSA title: 759467


The footage showing Dawn Fraser's historic 1964 win in Tokyo is all the more remarkable when we know the circumstances leading up to the event.

Involved in a car crash resulting in the tragic death of her mother, Dawn herself was not only wracked with depression but she also suffered injuries resulting in her neck and back being encased in a steel brace for weeks. Her ability to overcome this physical and mental crisis, going on to win gold, shows a level of toughness and determination probably unparalleled in our Olympic history.

Other athletes faced different types of pressure. Michelle Ford won gold at Moscow (1980), despite more than half our Olympic team boycotting the Games as a statement against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The great Australian sprinter Peter Norman – who supported the defiant Black Power salute of fellow athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (pictured) – returned home a pariah, suffering unofficial sanction and ridicule. While never running in an Olympics again, history shows Peter to have been a brilliant runner, as well as a political activist with the courage of his convictions.

A Collective Pride

Some of our Olympians have used their position to bring attention to important social issues, paving the way for future generations. The excerpt from the Word for Word podcast below focuses on Matt Mitcham – the Australian Olympian who won the 10m platform diving in Beijing 2008, obtaining the highest single-dive score in Olympic history:

Matthew Mitcham interviewed on Word for Word, 2012. Courtesy: JOY 94.9. NFSA title: 1133412

Matt battled depression and retired in his teenage years after burning out, but he returned to the sport, training hard to claim the greatest award in diving – the Olympic gold. He is also believed to be the first Australian to openly declare his sexuality before competing at an Olympic Games – and since then he has become an icon of the LGBTQI+ community.

And, of course, following her historic win in Sydney, Cathy Freeman ran a victory lap holding both the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag – a lap that referenced heritage, sending a positive, affirming message to her people and to all Australians.

New Mythologies

Delayed by a year because of the COVID pandemic, the Tokyo Games has been shrouded in debate and speculation. Many commentators have seen the potential for a super-spreading event – and decried the spending of vast sums of money. Meanwhile, advocates stress the symbolic importance of pressing forward – and emphasise the strict safety protocols that are in place. It is worth noting that Tokyo 2021 – and other Olympic events profiled in our curated collection – have corollaries in the ancient world of Greece, where the Games proceeded regardless of the backdrop of plague, famine and even war.

Whatever happens in the following weeks, we will see stories – even mythologies – emerge out of Tokyo 2021. There will be tales of achievement and sacrifice – Olympic efforts, with the power to lift us up and sometimes cast us down. And while those who gain fame in the Olympic arena will find few rivals in Australia’s public imagination, we ought to recognise the many other valiant athletes who aspire to the upper limits of human endeavour.


Explore our Summer Olympics highlights curated collection for more great Australian Olympic moments from 1964 to 2016.

Main image: photo by Gentrit Sylejmani on Unsplash.