THERE is an almost intangible, seemingly magical quality about Ballarat that seems to become prominent during the Olympics.
The Tokyo Games might be on hold, but this feeling has been emerging again the past fortnight with tales of the Sydney 2000 Olympics at the fore on the 20th anniversary of the festival lauded as the greatest Games ever.
Ballarat's strong reputation as a sporting city, as a regional city, demands international attention for its athletes and as a training ground. Sydney 2000 was another showcase of this with athletes in action across a wide range of disciplines, from rowing to shooting, athletics to badminton.
What exactly makes Ballarat such a rich sporting centre is hard to pinpoint.
Some Ballarat Olympians say there is this groundswell of community support. Volleyballer Tamsin Hinchley (née Barnett) says there is an environment here in which you felt you could achieve anything, and this was not limited to sport.
Rower Emily Carmody (née Martin) says quality, competitive school sports programs offered a great foundation, too.
Olympic marathon runner Steve Moneghetti says it goes deeper.
Ballarat is one of three Olympic host cities in Australia.
"We always say we punch above our weight in our sporting ability," Moneghetti says.
"There were a lot of Olympians here the night the torch relay. I think having the '56 Games here for rowing, ever since that has been an important part in the fabric of Ballarat. That night, our Olympians came together, our sport and our community was united behind the event."
Hinchley says the feeling of joining those ranks, becoming an Olympian, was hard to describe. She grew up rowing, a sport where Ballarat's Olympic presence was always felt. Suddenly, in the Sydney opening ceremony, Hinchley was walking out among some of her Ballarat rowing idols.
Sydney was Hinchley's first Olympics. Hinchley says Sydney was such a surreal experience for her in many ways, but it was hard to describe the moment she truly she was an Olympian.
"Getting the Olympic kit for the first time. There was a massive bag and you get the Australian Olympic tracksuit and suddenly you're dressed the same as all the other athletes," Hinchley said.
"You feel you're part of the Olympic group and, it's hard to describe, but you feel like an Olympian."
Hinchley did not medal in an Olympic Games. She maintains it's all about the experience, the hard journey to getting there, the memories. Sydney taught her a lesson in making the most of the journey - to be there you had to earn it.
To be there, Hinchley felt part of something bigger.
Ballarat athletes hold their own in state league competition for basketball, hockey and soccer. We have an array of national and international-class competitors.
But the Olympics, the world's greatest sporting stage, allows Ballarat to celebrate a sporting culture. What we have here is not magic but collective pride in inspiring each other - no matter what level our game may be.
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