When people think of Sydney 2000, they remember the highlights: Cathy Freeman winning gold and proudly carrying the Australian and Aboriginal flags, the Aussie men’s 4×100 relay swim team finally defeating the Americans and shredding on their air guitars, but one moment that is as equally etched into the memories of Olympic spectators was the heartbreaking disqualification of race walker Jane Saville just metres from a certain gold medal.
Saville grew up in La Perouse, Sydney, born into an active family she began Little Athletics at the age of four.
“Most kids my age did Little Athletics, all my friends did it and it was just a great introduction to sport because you participated in all the events,” Saville explained.
“I was always better at the distance and the race walking events and from the time I was about 11, I started to win medals and it was just a natural progression from there. If you’re good at something and you enjoy it, you continue on with it.”
Saville said that of all the different sports and disciplines she dabbled in, race walking stood out due to the technicality of the event.
“I enjoyed race walking because of the challenge. It’s a technical event, but it’s also an endurance event. In running, it’s important to have efficient technique, but in race walking, not only is it important to have efficient technique because you save energy, but to also abide by the rules of race walking,” she said.
“The challenge of those two aspects was really tough. Having to put it all together, the good technique and the endurance to last a 20-kilometre event really appealed to me.”
Saville’s dreams of Olympic glory began at a young age, when she watched Australian long-distance swimmer, Michelle Ford, win gold and bronze at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games.
“My first memory of the Olympic Games was when I was five or six years old and I saw Michelle Ford win gold,” she said.
“I thought to myself, ‘wow, that would be so cool’, but, you know, every kid has dreams they want to achieve and I never actually expected to go to the Olympics, let alone win an Olympic medal.”
Saville did go to an Olympics, in fact, she went to four and she wasn’t the only Olympic Saville.
Jane’s sister, Natalie, was also a race walker and competed at Athens 2004 and finished second behind Jane at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
“We were really lucky growing up, as our parents gave us the opportunity to play a lot of sports. We did athletics, swimming, physical culture, tennis and squash so we were really fortunate to have an active lifestyle,” Saville said.
Saville would go on to win the Australian Women’s Race Walking Championship five times and won her first Commonwealth Games gold in the 10km walk at Kuala Lumpur in 1998, just two years after she made her Olympic debut at Atlanta 1996 where she finished 26th.
“Going into Sydney 2000, I was feeling really good,” she said.
“I’d really stepped up the year before the world championships in 1999 where I placed seventh, so I was really confident that I could get a medal on home soil. The timing was perfect, I was of the perfect age.”
But as most stories go, things didn’t stay perfect.
“In May, I went to Mexico to train and then went to Europe and for the first time in my life, I got an injury,” she said.
“It was frustrating, but I thought, ‘I’ll be fine, I’ll just keep stretching, massaging and push through it,’ but it didn’t get any better.
“When I got back to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) they said I had a problem with my knee, where the tendon had friction on the knee and it was inflamed, so I had to rest and couldn’t race walk for June, July and part of August.
“I was fortunate that the Games weren’t until September, but I couldn’t go to any training camps with my squad, I had to stay in Canberra and I couldn’t push myself because when I did, it would be one step forward and five steps back.
“Rehab was something I’d never experienced physically, but also mentally, the challenge of counting down the days was a nightmare for me because everyone else was counting down the days until Sydney 2000, but for me it was just another day that I couldn’t race walk or train properly.
“Luckily, I was able to get help through my other sports, because up until I was 21 years of age, I swam competitively and represented at a national level until I was 17 and did surf lifesaving, so I could swim and keep my level of fitness quite high.
“So during those months I was in the pool morning and night and mentally it nearly killed me because I was there by myself, but luckily my sister was also based in Canberra training so having her there as support really helped, and my husband, Matt, (Matt White, who is a professional cyclist also coached Saville) was in Europe, training himself, so he’d be on the phone trying to get me through nights and days that were pretty stressful.
“On top of that, I met with a sports psychologist twice a week and utilised every facility the AIS could offer to get me to the start line for Sydney.
“I was fortunate to have really good people supporting me, they were as invested in my goals as I was, so it was a really beautiful experience to have them right behind me the whole way, not putting pressure on me but supporting me.”
Saville was able to start race walking just a month and a half out from the Games. As the hometown hero, Sydney was meant to be the pinnacle of her career.
In front of an electric 80,000-strong home crowd, Saville would famously lead the pack into the home stretch of the gruelling 20km race walk.
As she powered towards Stadium Australia, with golden glory just mere metres away, she was shown her third red card and was disqualified.
“I think everybody understood that in race walking, you have to maintain contact with the ground at all times, but what people don’t realise is that you also have to also straighten your knee when you make contact with the ground.
“In Sydney, for example, I was given two red cards for loss of contact, but the final red card was because the judge thought I wasn’t straightening my knees.”
Television screens were plastered with replays of Saville being shown her third red card, putting her head into her hands in disbelief, tears streaming down her face.
Minutes after the devastating blow, she was asked a question by awaiting media.
Her response was one that was given in the heat of an intensely emotional moment and it stood out in a way she wishes it hadn’t.
“I remember within about two minutes of being disqualified, and I ran back up the ramp thinking, I can’t go into the stadium, that’s even more embarrassing,” she said.
“I knew that my family and my fiancé (now husband) were there on the ramp waiting for me, but there was also someone from the media who asked me, ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’
“Out of sheer frustration I said, ‘You can give me a gun to shoot myself,’ and at the end of the day, it was a really flippant comment, I never wanted to kill myself,” Saville continued.
“It’s sport at the end of the day, we’re not saving lives and I was so fortunate to even compete at a home Olympic Games, but it was just a really silly answer and people really thought that I wanted to commit suicide over being disqualified, which is really quite sad.
“Of all the things that I said, because I love to talk, that was the one comment that stood out, but that’s what it’s all about, they needed their grab and the drama of the Olympic Games is the best thing about it.
“Hindsight is a beautiful thing and it saddened me that I thought of such a silly answer.”
The final judge inadvertently became the villain of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, but Saville said that although the empathy and anger from the crowd was touching, it was somewhat misguided.
“Look, it’s race walking,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I wasn’t angry at the judges at all, it’s a hard job to do and the judge that held the red paddle to tell me I was disqualified, he was just the messenger. Most of Australia wanted to kill him in that moment, which was so horrible, but at the end of the day, it was just his job to inform athletes if they were disqualified.
“The disqualification helped in a way, because it gave a lot of publicity to the sport and gave me the opportunity to explain certain rules to the public.”
Saville was praised for her sportsmanship and the gracious way in which she accepted the judge’s decision, even later winning an AOC Spirit of the Olympics Award, but she explained that in the past, those same decisions had benefited her.
“I remember when I was 17, I won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships and the reason I won that medal, was because the two girls in front of me were disqualified,” she continued.
“I went from being fourth with two laps to go, then all of a sudden, I was second with 600 metres to go and I took that medal, so I can’t really complain about winding up on the other side of it.”
Today she remains philosophical about Sydney 2000 and says her disappointed stemmed more from the work that went on behind the scenes, rather than the actual disqualification itself.
“The most heartbreaking part of it was around the journey, as cliché as that sounds,” Saville explained.
“People don’t really understand all the hurdles and the obstacles that you have to overcome to get to an Olympic Games, because they only see you once every four years and it’s just about who wins or loses.
“They don’t see what happens in between Games, where we go out and do the same thing, struggling and fighting our bodies if they’re not performing well or fighting our minds when things are tough, it’s certainly not easy.
“We are all professionals, but most sports aren’t paid professionally, yet we still bust our butts training really hard and we are so passionate, we love our sport and we want to succeed, but it all comes down to this one day,” she continued.
“For me, it was that one day every four years that I had to perform. It’s the ultimate challenge to make sure that everything goes perfectly which is so tough because our bodies are strange things.
“Sometimes they just do what they want to do, as much as we want to control them, it’s not easy.”
It was those challenges that almost forced Saville to quit the sport after Sydney 2000.
“It was actually a year later, I’d just been disqualified at the National Championships in March of that year, then I went to the World Championships and was disqualified there as well, so within less than a year I was disqualified twice.
“I didn’t even make it to the 10-kilometre mark, so less than a year after Sydney 2000 when I’d supposedly been working hard on my technique, the judges said it was even worse and that’s when I really started doubting whether I wanted to put in all this effort and spend all this time away from my family.
“I was just getting a bit sick of it.”
But in a true demonstration of her fighting spirit, instead of giving up she worked harder than ever on her technique.
Saville’s dedication paid off with her contesting a further two Commonwealth Games and winning gold at both, then, finally gracing the Olympic podium at Athens 2004, winning bronze at her third Olympic Games.
Saville finished her Olympic career placing 20th at Beijing 2008, then officially retired from race walking the following year.
“At the end of the day, I decided that I wanted to give myself the best opportunity I could, and just had a good Aussie go. I didn’t want to have any regrets,” she said.
She says that persistence, resilience and support were the key ingredients to her stellar athletics career.
“The most important lesson I learnt throughout my career is that there are things that happen to us that are out of our control,” she said.
“There is no way in the world I would have been able to compete at Sydney without the support of my family and those people at the AIS who were there day in and day out.
“Obviously I kept going every day, but it was so difficult. There were days where I was crying, I was a mental wreck and that’s the frustrating thing because now I can say it’s just sport, but to me, back then, it was the biggest thing that was ever going to happen to me, to have a home Olympics was never going to happen for me again.
“Everyone was counting down until the Olympics, but I was counting down until that nightmare was over and I could’ve given up and said, ‘lets not go to the Olympics,’ but I just had to be there and I was really proud that I got there.
“It definitely wasn’t the perfect preparation but I learned so much about goal setting and changing your plans, when you’ve got to revert from plan A to plan B, then to plan C, so it’s really important to be flexible as well.
“You’ve just got to strap in and enjoy the ride and it’s not always easy, but for all those difficult times, you get the one or two great times, which makes it all worthwhile,” she said.
The one piece of advice she wants to pass on to athletes of today is around maintaining perspective and practicing gratitude.
“Athletes in general are quite selfish, especially individual athletes.
“We’ve got this drive and tunnel vision about what we want to achieve and it’s devastation when those plans don’t work out and you don’t achieve what you want to achieve.
“But, 20 years down the track, I look back and think I’m lucky. I’ve got three kids, we live a healthy life and your perspective does change.
“Traveling from such a young age, seeing the world and seeing how lucky I was to live in a country like Australia, to grow up with food on our table and everything I could ever want, right there at my fingertips, really opened my eyes and gave me a good perspective on how fortunate I was.
“I made friends all over the world and I live in Spain now because of sport, my husband played sport and now he works in sport, so the doors that it opens and the influence that it can have on your on your life is incredible.
“I realised that because I grew up in Australian, even if I’d won that gold medal, it wouldn’t have changed my life dramatically, but for other athletes from different nations it would change not only their lives but the lives of their entire family.”
Since hanging up her sneakers, Saville’s dreams have shifted from Olympic glory.
Her Instagram bio reads, ‘Once was a race walker, now a mum, still chasing my dreams,’ and today’s dreams are a little simpler.
“[My dream is] to be happy,” she said.
“I’m coaching kids in athletics which is really fun. To be honest, I’d never had any interest in coaching because I’d never want to coach someone like me, too difficult and too much stress,” she laughed.
“But it’s nice coaching the kids and just being involved in the sport.
“I’ve got three young kids so just teaching them the values of life is really important.
“In 20 years, the world has changed so much, especially duringthis pandemic we’ve seen how important physical activity and exercise for the general population.
“It’s such a beautiful sight to see people exercising and really enjoying being out, and I think it’s something that we take for granted.
“ For me to influence people and be a bit of a role model to participate, not as an Olympic athlete or to win an Olympic gold medal, but just to get people interested in loving sport, that is a really important thing for me.”
Originally published for olympics.com.au