Cathy Freeman ran with the weight of history on her shoulders. She ran for her sister who had been born with Cerebral Palsy, she ran because she wanted to win. When Freeman won the gold medal in the 400m final in at the 2000 Sydney Olympics she had become the transcendent symbol for the whole country and for the Olympics themselves.
Amidst the patriotic fervour of the Sydney Olympics one woman came to represent to the Australian public both a painful history and an optimistic future. At the games she was to become the first Aborigine athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. But the weight of public adoration and expectation coupled with a period of seismic change in her personal life threatened to over-shadow her preparations.
Born in 1973 and brought up in Mackay, sugar cane country in Australia’s north-east. Freeman came from the best sporting stock. Her Grandfather was a Rugby League legend and his son Norman (Cathy’s father) was also a natural athlete. It was a tough upbringing made even tougher when Cathy’s father left her mother and she was forced to take on extra cleaning jobs to support he five children. Cathy’s mother remarried, however, and Bruce Barber a white railway guard from Brisbane became Cathy’s stepfather. Barber did whatever he could to help his stepchildren and when Cathy displayed a rare talent for track and field he did what ever he could to foster it.
She repaid her parents hard work by rising on the national scene very quickly and in the 1990 Commonwealth Games she ran in the 100m relay, helping Australia to the gold medal and becoming the first Aborigine to win a Commonwealth Gold. It gave her the platform to make her first political statement, declaring 'Being Aboriginal means everything to me,' she said. 'I feel for my people all the time. A lot of my friends have the talent but lack the opportunity.’
The exposure gave her more funding and she kicked on from the team format, becoming a dedicated 400m sprinter. Four years later, she won an individual gold medal in the event and sparked controversy when she completed a victory lap with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, prompting questions in the Australian parliament. Her sporting accomplishments continued apace with silver in Atlanta and a World Championship gold in Athens 1997, but by then she had become a superstar in her native Australia as some one who had transcended history and straddled the racial divide.
Aborigine activists had planned to use the Sydney Olympics as the platform to air their grievances as what they called Australia’s ‘dirty secret’, namely the displacement and active discrimination of the Australian Aborigines. Many put pressure on Freeman to withdraw from the games, which she rejected. ‘Boycotts don't work. It would be giving out negative signals. I'd much rather be seen as a young indigenous woman making the most of the opportunities of today.'
In 1997, right after winning her World Championship title her relationship with her long-time training companion, business manager, part-time trainer and lover Nick Bideau imploded. An intense partnership from which had sprung such success had all of a sudden turned sour and ended in a battle in the courts over her sponsorship earnings. As if there wasn’t enough pressure already on the young runner, she could now add the intense public scrutiny and speculation over her personal life to the mix.
Freeman was the poster girl for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was she who lit the Olympic pyre at the opening ceremony, she carried the expectations of millions as Australia’s only hope for an Olympic gold in athletics. The heats went off without a hitch and she finished fastest over all, so went she took to the starting line for the final the pressure was immense. The noise in the stadium was deafening and Cathy, dressed in a full bodysuit, was puffing out her cheeks before taking her mark. Running carefully at the beginning it wasn’t until the 200m mark that she began to leave the pack behind and she powered ahead with 60m to go storming to the finish and claiming gold. The commentators on Australian television uttered the now immortal words "what a legend, what a champion… what a relief!"
On winning Freeman dropped to her knees you can only guess at what she was feeling in that moment. After she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, her running shoes were red, black and yellow, the traditional Aboriginal colours, but she took them off and ran her victory lap barefoot in the traditional Aboriginal style. For most Australians Cathy Freeman’s gold is one of those ‘where were you’ moments and for the rest of the world’s her determination and grace are true examples of the power of the human spirit and the power of sport to lift nations.
by Hugo Mc Cafferty