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September 25, 2000
Cathy Freeman takes goldThe Rediff Team
On the 15th of September, Cathy Freeman ignited the Olympic flame. Exactly ten days later, in front of a capacity crowd at Stadium Australia, she ignited a nation.
Running in a full body suit, her shoes flying the Aboriginal colours, Freeman stayed level with the leaders up to the 300m mark, then took off with her legendary acceleration to shade the field by almost a metre, breasting the tape in 49.13.
Jamaica's Lorraine Graham came in second, in a time of 49.50, while Katherine Merry of Great Britain claimed the bronze with 49.72. All three runners ran personal bests, though it was under the Olympic and World Record timings.
A moment of tears, a flashing smile -- and Freeman was serenely walking around the stadium, acknowledging the thunderous ovation that cascaded in waves over her.
And why not? Australia, going into the 10th day of the Olympics, was on a low. Expecting a golden splash in the pool, the home team was stung by repeated failures, ending up with just four golds after banking on toppling the United States as the Superfish of world acquatics.
Medals did come in waterpolo and beach volleyball -- but for the nation to redeem itself in front of the world, it needed success on the track. And it was left to Freeman to provide it.
Sure, her triumph was expected, more so after the antics of France's enigmatic Marie Jose Perec. Going into the final as the fastest qualifier, Freeman was the "sure bet" -- but then, so was Thorpe before unheralded Dutchman Pieter Van Den Hoogenband thrashed him in his own home pool.
Which is why the nation held its breath, letting it out in one cathartic sigh as Freeman breasted the tape, before breaking into a roar that produced an Olympic record in decibels.
It was expected that mass expectation -- there was every possibility that Australia would have collectively worn sack-cloth and ashes had the ace runner failed -- would prove too much for her. But then again, why? Freeman has spent a lifetime dealing with great expectations. When very young, mom Cecilia made Cathy write "I am the world's greatest athlete" in letters as large as herself, and hang it on on the home wall in plain view.
The diminutive (5'4 1/2", 115 lbs) 27-year-old Melburnian came into the race the overwhelming favourite, with wins in the last two world titles and with a record of having won 31 of her last 32 races.
And she needed the win, not just to justify her own extravagant talent and to add the Olympic gold to her glittering collection of world titles, but to provide the springboard for her eventual, and inevitable, entry into Aboriginal politics.
In March this year, Freeman told the New York Times: "The time will come when I can be more instrumental in politics and Aboriginal affairs. But now, I think I'm playing a big part doing what I'm doing."
A proud Aboriginal, Freeman first raised waves when, at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, she took her victory lap with the Aboriginal flag draped over her shoulder before finally adding the Australian flag. That was the first public proclamation of Aboriginal rights and, as a political statement, on par with the clenched fist salute with which Tommy Smith (and bronze winner John Carlos) greeted his gold-medal-winning world record run in the 200m at Mexico in 1968.
The Smith-Carlos gesture, aimed at highlighting the plight of the blacks in American, created a furore and the two athletes were asked to leave Mexico City within 24 hours -- but in Freeman's case, the gesture forced the Australians to take a new look at the whole question of race relations and, much to the surprise of the politicians, the general reaction was overwhelmingly favorable with Freeman receiving over 5000 faxes of support following her victory lap, one of them from then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.
She was to repeat the gesture again, following her 400-meter victory at the 1997 World Championships. In 1998, she was named Australian of the Year, one of the biggest civilian honour in that country -- and perhaps by way of reciprocating, it was the Australian, not Aboriginal, flag she carried on her victory lap after retaining her title in the 1999 Worlds.
The process of reconciliation was carried forward when Freeman was selected to light the Olympic Cauldron. Typically, Freeman gave the incident her own spin. "Much is made about me being an Aboriginal," Freeman said after touching off the torch. "This fact should be celebrated, not abused. I love where I come from, but I am not at the Olympics to be political. I don't think to myself that I've got to make this next move for the Aboriginal cause."
Maybe not. But there is no doubting that her win has made her a national heroine, in a country that celebrates sporting success to an almost inordinate measure.
Athletically speaking, it has been a long voyage for Freeman, from 1996 Atlanta when she clocked 48.63 to win a silver. She took gold a year later, at the Worlds, and finished the 1997 season ranked number one in the world in her pet event. Having missed most of 1998 with an injury, she then came back in 1999 to defend her world title in the 400m. In all the time since Atlanta, she has lost only one final -- at the Bislett Games in Oslo, in 1998, when an injured foot caused her to place fourth. Once she had recovered, she was back on song immediately, and had 16 consequtive wins to her name coming in to Sydney.
Along the way, she decided to try her hand at the 200m, thus setting up a potentially explosive showdown with America's superstar, Marion Jones.
A proud athlete and prouder Aboriginal, Freeman has a tattoo on her right triceps that reads: "Cos I'm Free".
Now, she can fill that empty space on her left triceps, with a matching one reading: "Cos I'm the champ!"
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