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September 16, 2000
Freeman is Sydney's first superstarJulian Linden
If you had not heard of Cathy Freeman before Friday's Olympic opening ceremony, you will now.
Freeman, already a heroine in her native Australia, became a worldwide celebrity at the Sydney Games when she lit the Olympic cauldron.
As a two-time 400 metres world champion and Atlanta Olympic silver medallist, Freeman's performances on the track alone warrant attention.
The 27-year-old Freeman is a red-hot favourite for the gold medal in Sydney but that is only part of the reason why she is destined to be the single most scrutinised athlete at the Games.
The main reason is that Freeman is Aboriginal and prepared to talk about her anger at the way her people have been treated.
By her own account, Freeman is naturally timid but she has refused to let her shyness stop her from revealing her darkest secrets. It is unlikely she will clam up when nosey journalists start quizzing her now.
In her biography, 'A Journey Just Begun', Freeman revealed how she was molested as a child. She also spoke of the tragic deaths of her sister, who suffered from cerebral palsy, and her alcoholic father.
But Freeman is far from a pathetic figure. Hers is a story of a brave young woman who overcame adversity to become an inspiration for an entire people.
Freeman is a reluctant figurehead but is so deeply proud of her heritage that she feels compelled to speak out against perceived injustices.
When an Australian Senate inquiry in April suggested the term "stolen generation" was an exaggeration, Freeman delivered a passionate response, accusing the government of being untruthful by revealing that her own grandmother was forcibly removed from her family.
"You have to understand that when you have a government that is so insensitive to the issues that are close to people's hearts, that have affected so many lives for the worse, people are going to be really angry and emotional," Freeman said in an interview with a London newspaper that created headlines around the world.
Freeman's openness has won her many admirers but has also come at a high-price with her once simple life transformed into a soap opera. Now, almost everything she says or does ends in a public brawl.
Freeman first put her foot into controversy when she won a gold medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada.
A major race row erupted when she carried the Aboriginal flag on her shoulders during a lap of honour, incurring the wrath of Australia's Commonwealth Games chief Arthur Tunstall who was incensed she did not wrap herself in the national flag.
Then, when native leaders, angry at the government's refusal to apologise for mistreatment of indigenous Australians, called for an Aboriginal boycott of the Sydney Games, Freeman found herself under intense pressure to join in.
She decided to run after the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal leaders said they supported her.
But Aboriginal leaders were less impressed when she recently appeared in a Nike advertisement featuring dozens of top sportsmen and women saying "sorry", claiming it trivialised the national campaign for an apology from the prime minister.
More recently, Freeman's finances have captured headlines, initially because of her messy battle with her former manager and lover Nick Bideau, then when was told she owed A$400,000 ($240,000) in unpaid taxes.
Despite all her problems, Freeman has always shown a remarkable ability to block out distractions and put her best foot forward on the track.
The slender schoolgirl who used to run in bare feet along dry river beds was second to great French sprinter Marie-Jose Perec at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Freeman has lost just one race over 400 metres in the four years since, collecting the 1997 and 1999 world titles, and has been in brilliant form this season.
She set the fastest time in the world this year when she clocked 49.98 seconds at the Monaco Golden League meeting in August then beat 200 metres world champion Inger Miller of the U.S. at a meeting in Britain and is now running that event as well.
But her success has added to the pressure and she goes into the Sydney Games as overwhelming favourite over Perec, who has tormented Freeman by suddenly pulling out of each of their scheduled clashes.
Freeman also had a scare when she strained her leg before a race in London but no-one in Australia will hear of her losing. Expectation is so high that tickets for her final sold out as soon as they went on offer.
Aware of the enormous pressure she is under, Australia's athletics officials have gone to extreme lengths to protect their most prized asset.
Freeman was allowed to skip the Australian Olympic trials after she was handed an automatic place in the team and allowed to stay in Europe.
"I can go back to Sydney physically and, more importantly, mentally sound and ready for the Games," Freeman said.
"For every one of us out there it's been a case of the calm before the storm."
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