The lighting of the Olympic cauldron, the victory lap in front of a jubilant crowd, the green and white full bodysuit… Cathy Freeman left an unforgettable mark on the Sydney 2000 Games. Twenty years on, who will claim victory in the 400m in the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo? Naturally the chances are higher for athletes also taking part in the women’s 4x400m event and the new mixed 4x400m relay!
On Monday 25 September 2000, with cameras flashing on every side of the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, a vociferous crowd of more than 112,000 spectators roared on the home favourite, in a deafening atmosphere, in one of the most highly anticipated events of the Games of the XXVII Olympiad: the final of the women’s 400m, with Cathy Freeman taking centre stage. Wearing a full bodysuit complete with a green and white hood, the reigning double world champion was just behind Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham and Great Britain’s Katharine Merry on the final bend, but she was irrepressible, accelerating and breaking clear to cross the finish line in 49.11 seconds, ahead of Graham (49.58) and Merry (49.72).
The roars intensified as the crowd celebrated the victory with an outpouring of joy from the stands. Freeman, still on the track, seemed overwhelmed by the incredible show of affection from the tens of thousands of spectators. That, at least, was the impression of those present in the stadium, who watched on as the new Olympic champion crouched on the ground and lowered her head, with no sign of happiness whatsoever. She later explained that this was a reaction to what, for her, was an unsatisfactory time: “Some of my brain is very business-like. At the time, as soon as I crossed the line, I was very matter-of-fact about it. I was a bit disappointed about the time.”
One week earlier: the magic moment of lighting the cauldron
Freeman had just won Australia’s 100th Olympic gold medal. From the very start of the Games, her face had been everywhere, on huge posters throughout the state of New South Wales, on buses and on the front pages of newspapers. The athlete, of Aboriginal descent, was the symbol of national unity. She had been chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, the culminating moment of the Opening Ceremony, on 15 September. Who can forget those breathtaking images of Freeman standing in front of a cascade of water, lighting a flame that grew all around her and then rose above her, leaving her seemingly floating in the middle of a towering waterfall?
The magic moment of lighting the cauldron, the sensational victory in front of a home crowd, the green and white bodysuit, which has become etched in the collective memory… “The whole story has become larger than who I am,” said Freeman years later. But the stage had been well and truly set for her crowning moment in Sydney. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, she won the silver medal, finishing behind France’s Marie-José Pérec, and recorded the best time of her career – 48.63 seconds – which still stands as the sixth best performance of all time. With Pérec absent from the event at the IAAF World Championships in Athens in 1997 and Seville in 1999, Freeman came to the fore and won two consecutive world titles.
She went into her home Olympic Games as the clear favourite, and the bizarre events that saw Pérec flee Sydney less than 48 hours before the race did nothing to throw her off her stride. She lived up to expectations magnificently, and her golden victory has gone down in Australian sporting history. “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,” she said in 2018.
Twenty years on, who are the leading medal contenders for the Tokyo Games?
Only two women have beaten the 49-second mark over 400m since Pérec (48.25 seconds) and Freeman (48.63 seconds) did so in the final in Atlanta on 29 July 1996: American Sanya Richards-Ross in 2006 (48.70 seconds) – before she was crowned Olympic champion in London in 2012 – and Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo (48.97 seconds) in 2018. While Richards-Ross retired from sport in 2016, Miller-Uibo is the current queen of the event. Her victory at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – when she threw herself over the finish line to pip the USA’s Allyson Felix, who had beaten her in the final of the IAAF World Championships in Beijing the previous year – is still fresh in the memory. Miller-Uibo has clocked the best time of the season, running 49.05 seconds in Gainesville (Florida) in late April, and is the favourite to clinch the world title in Doha (Qatar) on 3 October. She also excels over 200m (she recorded her best performance of the year, running 21.74 seconds, on 30 August in Zurich) – who’s to say she won’t go for a double in Tokyo?
Meanwhile, Felix, the most decorated female track and field athlete at the Olympic Games (nine medals, including six golds) and the IAAF World Championships (16 medals, including 11 golds), became a mum in November 2018. The Tokyo Games will give her the chance to win the only individual Olympic title that has eluded her – the 400m, in which she has claimed three Olympic and four world titles as part of the American 4x400m relay team. “I want to be back at the Olympics,” she said. “I want that more than anything. I want to go out on my terms. A little sacrifice here or there, I believe, will be worth it.” For her return to competition, Felix did not qualify as an individual for the 2019 World Championships in Doha, but she did secure a place for the two relays, the women’s 4x400m and the mixed 4x400m relay, a new Olympic event. She will be one to watch in 2020, as she has been consistently for the past 15 years.
Having won the IAAF Diamond League in the distance with five victories (Shanghai, Rome, Rabat, Lausanne and Zurich), Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser has become a household name this season. She recorded the second-best time of the year, clocking 49.17 seconds at the Stade de la Pontaise in the Olympic Capital, Lausanne, on 5 July. Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson, a bronze medallist at Rio 2016 and gold medallist at the Pan-American Games in Lima on 8 August, will also be vying for glory next year in the Japanese capital. And let’s not forget about the American specialists, such as Shakima Wimbley, who won the national qualifiers for the 2019 World Championships, her heirs apparent, Kendall Ellis and Wadeline Jonathas, and Phyllis Francis, the 2017 world champion.
The 17th IAAF World Championships in Qatar should provide a clearer idea of what to expect as we gear up to the Tokyo Games.