Why Cathy Freeman’s 400m Gold at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney was a performance of enormous symbolic power

Few moments epitomise grace under pressure so elegantly as the Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman in her sleek green, white and yellow bodysuit surging to 400m Olympic Gold in front of an adoring home crowd. Few athletes have ever carried the heavy weight of symbolism and expectation so lightly around the track. ‘To me running’s like breathing. It’s something that comes really naturally and I’m good at it’ – how effortless she makes it all sound. But to become – and to live with being – an icon who transcends sport, who is cast as bringing together an entire nation and symbolising the dawning of a new era? That was anything but effortless.

Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman was born in Mackay, Queensland in 1973, to Cecilia and Norman Freeman, both Aboriginal Australians. Her mother was a cleaner at the local school and a strict disciplinarian – banning her kids from eating junk food and raising them as strict Catholics. Freeman had three brothers and an older sister, Anne-Marie, born with cerebral palsy, who spent much of her life in a care facility. Their father was a less happy influence – an ex-Rugby League player, he started drinking heavily and behaving violently, and the couple divorced in 1978.

No one could ever accuse the young Cathy of being slow out of the blocks – she began athletics at the age of five, under the tuition of her new stepfather, Bruce Barber. From her first race at eight, she was hooked. Running was all she wanted to do. One of her primary school teachers raised money for her to attend the state primary school championships and even bought her a pair of running spikes. She ran, and ran, and won and won.

And so, by the age of 14, when she told her high school careers advisor that her only goal was to win an Olympic medal, it may not have seemed quite so far-fetched. By then she already held national titles in the high jump, the 100m, 200m and 400m. In 1990 she made her first national team, as part of the Australian 4x100m relay team at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. They won, making Freeman the first-ever Aboriginal Commonwealth Games medallist at the age of just 16. However, just three days later, tragedy struck at home with the death of her sister. At the funeral, Freeman swore that every race she ever ran would now be for Anne-Marie.

That driving force proved powerful – in 1994 she won double gold at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada – but controversy also followed, when she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her victory laps. Australia was divided in its reaction. Some media reports claimed it as a gesture of reconciliation, but with Freeman increasingly aware of her status as a role model for the Aboriginal community, her decision was surely more about representation. At any event, it infuriated the Australia’s Chef de Mission, Arthur Tunstall, who said that if she did it again, she’d be sent home. Freeman ignored him. [so was she sent home? AD] More improvement followed as she finished fourth in Gothenburg at the 1995 World Championships and won silver at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The stage seemed perfectly set for a triumphant home games in 2000.

Yet ominous clouds were gathering. While still a schoolgirl, Freeman had met Nick Bideau, then a 30-year-old sports journalist, and a turbulent relationship began. Her family disapproved, and after a few years things started to turn sour. In her autobiography years later, Freeman revealed that she had suspected him of infidelity, and hacking into his computer she discovered email love letters from Irish runner Sonia O’Sullivan. Freeman confronted Bideau, who denied the affair, and then the pair together, before smashing a mirror in anger and lacerating her wrist. Later, she punched Bideau in the face. Distraught at the betrayal, she started drinking and smoking and was only wrenched back on the straight and narrow by her mother.

Weight of history

If Freeman’s run up to the Games was anything but smooth, it only reflected Australia’s own path. In 1992, Sydney had been in competition with Beijing, Brasilia, Istanbul, Manchester, Milan and Tashkent for the 2000 games. It was far from a unified bid, from a far from unified nation. Since Europeans first arrived on Australian shores, Aboriginal people had seen their land stolen and their cultures systematically destroyed. The most ancient civilisation on the planet, a complex array of over 500 different clan groups or nations with 250 different languages, different and distinctive cultures and beliefs, treated as simply one ‘primitive’ people to be ‘educated’ and erased. In fact, they were barely treated as people at all – until 1967 they weren’t even counted in the census.

While Australia in the early 1990s might have wanted to present itself as a modern, multi-cultural nation, the perfect place to host the millennium Games, the oppression of Aboriginal peoples was not history, but current affairs. It was only that year, 1992, that the law declaring that pre-European Australia was ‘terra nullius’, or empty land, which could legitimately be taken, was finally overturned. Small wonder that many felt awarding the Olympics to Sydney would allow Australia’s darkest secrets to be whitewashed.

Protesters decided to take action. Campaigners from The Metropolitan Land Council of Sydney, an organisation working on indigenous land rights, sent a dossier to all the rival host cities laying out the mistreatment of Aborgines in Australia. One can only speculate what those famously democracy-loving nations of China and Uzbekistan made of it all.

Despite the protests, Sydney pipped Beijing to win the bid. However, protests continued from the award up to the Games, and pressure on Freeman – as one of the country’s few internationally-recognisable Aboriginal faces – mounted. The civil rights activist Charles Perkins, himself a trailblazer and a powerful voice for Aboriginal rights, issued a warning to Olympic tourists: ‘If you want to see burning cars and burning buildings, then come over, enjoy yourselves. It’s “Burn, baby, burn” from now on. We’re going to show to the world that Australia’s got dirty underwear; it might have a clean suit and look good on the outside, but there is something awfully wrong on the inside.’

The pressure built on Freeman personally to boycott the Games, but she resisted: ‘If you take running away from me, you take away a huge part of my life. People say we should be protesting for white people taking indigenous lives away. Why turn around and do the same to one of our own?’

It wasn’t a decision she took lightly Freeman knew all too well the impact of Australian government policy. She may, by 2000, have been a household name, ‘Bigger than Shane Warne, Harry Kewell, Dame Edna Everage, Rolf Harris and Kylie Minogue rolled into one’ according to one Australian journalist, but she was also the daughter and granddaughter of the Stolen Generation.

From 1910 through to the 1960s, thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed in homes in a programme of forced assimilation. It was from her training camp in England, weeks before the Games, that Freeman revealed her own family story: ‘My grandmother was taken away from her mother because she had fair skin. I was so angry because they [the government] were denying they had done anything wrong, denying that a whole generation was stolen. I’ll never know who my grandfather was, I didn’t know who my great grandmother was, and that can never be replaced. All that pain, it’s very strong and generations have felt it.’

The public lauding of Freeman before the Olympics was supposed to show that this history was just that, and firmly in the past. As the great sportswriter Matthew Engel wrote before the 2000 final, Freeman ‘has emerged as a symbol of Australia’s edgy transformation from the white male-dominated imperial outpost that staged the 1956 Olympics to the multicultural melting pot of 2000.’ For Freeman, though, this was very much still her present. So to compete for your nation, to carry the pain of an entire Aboriginal community, to express that, and then somehow be responsible for reconciling two halves of a nation? Who could possibly bear that kind of pressure?

Pressure cooker

Yet when the pressure reached boiling point, it wasn’t Freeman who cracked.

Her biggest threat for the 2000 title was France’s Marie-Jose Perec, who had beaten her seven of the nine times they had raced. Any Hollywood writer scripting this rivalry would surely have cast Perec as a haughty representative of the old guard – the privilege of old Europe vs the Aboriginal underdog. In fact, Perec hailed from Basse-Terre, part of the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe, and had been raised by her grandmother. Mocked at school as ‘La canne a sucre’ (sugarcane) due to her lanky frame and height, she had been so nervous before her first athletics meeting that she hid in a cupboard. Visiting coaches from France soon spotted her talent, and thus began an illustrious career.

Perec, like Freeman, had run at two previous Olympics, winning 400m gold in 1992 in Barcelona, and in Atlanta in 1996 at both the 200m and the 400m. She was a proven champion, the greatest ever French sprinter, yet since 1996 she’d been plagued by injuries and self-doubt. She also suffered from Epstein-Barr Syndrome, which causes chronic fatigue. The pressure of expectation on her, too, was not only immense but less justified, given her recent struggles.

Just before the heats were due to begin, Perec bolted, leaving Sydney with a trail of rumours in her wake. She refused to talk to the press, and her only public comment was posted on her website, where she criticised the Australian media, saying, ‘I have the impression that everything has been made up in order to destabilise me. The games have hardly begun and already I wish they would end because I’m so scared’.

Later, she claimed she had been threatened by an unidentified man in her hotel, and in a more dramatic turn still she was held for several hours by police at Singapore airport after her companion, the US sprinter Anthuan Maybank, allegedly attacked a television cameraman.

Speculation was rife as to what was truth, and what was paranoia. But judgement on her from her own country was certainly swift and harsh. The president of the French Athletic Federation, Philippe Lamblin, declared: ‘The whole of France is penalised by this decision. She left like a thief. She had the chance to finish in style but instead she’s gone off the rails.’

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Perec. For all Freeman’s personal unease with her country’s colonialist history, she herself was taken to heart by the press and by the Australian people in a way that France never did Perec, despite all her Olympic golds.

And if only Perec had been on form, what a race it could have been. Indeed Freeman herself was disappointed. ‘I was really sad,’ she said later, ‘I would really have loved to have had the chance to have raced her and of course to have beaten her. But I’ll never have that chance and that’s one thing that really gets to me, always.’

Could an in-form Perec have beaten Freeman? Possibly, but that form was long gone, and one suspects Perec knew it. As it turned out, the much hyped-up rivalry was more a passing of a baton from a talent on the wane, to one at its peak.

If anything, Perec’s departure only ratcheted up the pressure on Freeman. Returning to Sydney from her UK base could have left Freeman in no doubt as to her country’s expectations: a colosal poster of her greeted travellers at the airport, another near Sydney’s Harbour Bridge took up the entire side of a tower block. For Australia, Freeman was the games.

Freeman herself seemed immune to it all. Even a pending breach-of-contract lawsuit against her by former boyfriend and manager Bideau seemed not to phase her. ‘I had a deadly sense of self-belief’ she said later. ‘I’d go to another level and say I had a deadly sense of self-conviction… No one could ever get into this sacred space that only I’m allowed in.’

That sacred space cracked only once, claimed Freeman, in the entire run up to the games. ‘I had a little panic attack that lasted for three or four seconds — a very private moment — where I thought, “F*** this, I can’t do this, why am I doing this?” It was a momentary glitch, though, and soon shrugged off.

Flame and fortune

To cement her iconic status at the Sydney Games, Freeman was asked to light the Olympic fame at the opening ceremony. For the organisers, the Aboriginal Freeman symbolising the new dawning of a new era was just too powerful an image to resist. And the moment she lit the flame is truly an extraordinary one. Dressed in a skin-tight white bodysuit she stands in a ring of rising water and flame. She looks like the heroine of a futuristic sci-fi film.

And then there is the other iconic suit, the one she actually raced in. It was, perhaps, an odd choice for someone who apparently felt awkward in front of the cameras. For all its head-turning looks, though, what it really was a costume and like in so many superhero costumes, it provided a kind of disguise against the watching world. ‘I wore it in Newcastle [Australia] in a 200m and it was raining and cold and windy and I felt like I was flying through the air’ she explained. ‘I was cocooned in my own world and athletes want to be in that bubble, you are so single-minded. It felt right.’

In that bubble, she cruised through the heats. She eased in with the first round, doing the minimum required with 51.63 seconds. The second round saw another effortless victory, stepping up to 50.31. And in the semi-final, her foot a little harder on the gas, she thrilled the crowd with 50.01, comfortably the fastest over the line.

Then, on Monday 25 September, the final itself. In the stadium were an astonishing 112,524 people – the largest attendance in Olympic Games history – and every one of them looking at her, and only her. Millions more watched on TV. Pre-race, for all the talk of ‘deadly self-belief’ she looks nervous, puffing her cheeks out, exhaling and pacing. Then, zipping up her suit and pulling the hood over her head, she dives into that bubble.

The gun goes, and she is off, propelled out of the blocks by a tidal surge from the crowd. Once running, her face relaxes. Her stride is long, she is calmly focussed, executing the plan she and her coach, Peter Fortune, have agreed to perfection. She eases in, takes the first half of the race steady. Coming into the final bend, Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham and Team GB’s Katharine Merry are clearly ahead of her and the crowd quietens a little – surely this isn’t in the script? But then the burners ignite and 100m later Freeman has run through to history, with clear air between her and the others. She crosses the line in 49.11 seconds, and the crowd give full voice to their adoration. It’s impossible to watch without tingles down the spine.

Freeman though looks not jubilant, but utterly blank. She sinks to her haunches, pulls down her hood and stares into nothing. It takes an age before she seems to react at all. And then, eventually, smiles appear. She bounds off for her lap of honour with twin flags in her hands. Later, after receiving her gold medal, she runs to the stands to present her flowers to her mum.

For years afterwards, that delayed reaction was seen as a woman stunned by what she’d done – a release of pressure so great she was unable to comprehend it. Few athletes had ever run with a greater burden of expectation, and she’d carried it round that track to gold.

The reality, when she finally explained it, was actually almost comically low key: ‘Some of my brain is very business-like’ she said. ‘I was a bit disappointed about the time…. I was surprised nobody forced it, pushed it a bit… no one really, really committed against me. Nobody really believed they could beat me.’

And to be fair, they were right.

Leaving a legacy

After the fever pitch of that night, Freeman’s remaining career was muted. She didn’t compete at all in 2001, and in 2002 only as part of Australia’s winning relay quartet at the Commonwealth games. In 2003, she announced her retirement. Her post-athletics career has focused around education and Aboriginal rights. In 2007 she set up the Cathy Freeman Foundation, to help close the education gap between indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian children. While she’s made public appearances – she carried the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City winter Olympics in 2002, and was an ambassador for the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast games in 2018 – she has never pursued fame.

Her legacy, though, is profound, and something she is only now beginning to comprehend. ‘The whole story has become larger than who I am,’ she said last year. ‘After I went for a swim recently I walked into a café .. and a gentleman realised who I was. He was maybe in his early 60s and he got really excited, took me into his personal space and said, “We were there, we were there that night”. He insisted on a photograph and his eyes lit up, his whole demeanour changed.’

‘When those moments occur it’s like almost watching a magic show. I have tried really hard each day, each year I get older to really respect the way that people relate to that one race in September in 2000. It is so intense and it is so honest.’

Intensity and honesty seem excellent epithets for Freeman herself. While she clearly wants to leverage her own success to help other Aboriginal people in their continued struggle for equality, she is equally clearly uncomfortable with adulation: ‘My life is an invasion, with sincere intent, but sometimes I do think the price is too high.’ Becoming a sporting icon is one thing, becoming a historical one is a different pressure entirely. But if she has struggled to come to terms with it, then again it only reflect her nation, which for all the progress made still also struggles to comes to terms with its past.

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