- 25 Sep 2000
- Sydney 2000
Athletics - Cathy Freeman
Has any athlete ever had to deal with the amount of expectation piled on to the shoulders of Cathy Freeman?
Everyone in Australia knew about Freeman. Most of her relatives were Aborigines, the native people of Australia, and her grandmother was part of the “stolen generation”, who had been taken from their tribes to be raised by white parents. Her ancestors also included immigrants from China and Syria, and her family tree seemed to mirror the complex growth of the host nation. Not only was she a fantastic runner, but she appeared to represent Australia's history.
Freeman had first competed in the Olympics as a teenager, back in 1992, and took a silver medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She won the world championship title in both 1997 and 1999 and arrived at the Sydney Games having won 37 of her previous 38 finals.
Before she could even start competing, though, Freeman had another daunting challenge. She was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, the culmination of a spectacular Opening Ceremony, and the cue for her to gain even greater worldwide fame. It was, she later claimed, a much more intimidating prospect than running in the 400m. As she famously once said- “running is like breathing to me”.
She sailed through her quarter-final, winning in 50.32 seconds, and then won her semi-final in 50.02 seconds. By now, reigning champion Marie-José Pérec had pulled out of the competition and Freeman's biggest rival was the Jamaican Lorraine Graham, who won the other semi-final.
The final was watched by more than 112,000 people inside the stadium, and by half of Australia on television. Wearing a striking hooded bodysuit, Freeman started cautiously and then pulled away on the back straight to win by nearly half a second, with Graham taking silver and Great Britain's Katharine Merry the bronze.
Jubilant and suddenly overwhelmed, Freeman sank to the track and simply sat there for two minutes as the crowd cheered jubilantly. She completed a lap of honour carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags.