The 49.11 seconds it took for Cathy Freeman to win the 400m final at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 are some of the most impactful moments in sporting history. Images of the Australian, who is of Aboriginal descent, clad in her distinctive running suit are instantly recognisable the world over. For the star herself, the magnitude of that night, almost 18 years ago, is starting to hit home.
“It is beginning to sink in,” Freeman laughed. “It’s a coming-of-age thing for me, hitting my mid-40s. I can feel myself taking a bit more ownership of it all. I am trying to say, ‘C’mon Catherine, c’mon Freeman, it is what it is, celebrate it a bit, girl’.”
It is perhaps not a surprise that the enormity of it all has, until recently, been almost too much to contemplate for Freeman. Not only was she her nation’s sole, realistic prospect of an athletics gold medal in Sydney, but she was also, far more importantly, a symbol for national unity.
“The whole story has become larger than who I am,” the Australian admitted.
She is still reminded, on a regular basis, just what her athletic achievements mean to her compatriots.
“After I went for a swim recently I walked into a café with a girlfriend and a gentleman realised who I was,” she explained. “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.”
For Freeman, the first inkling that her relationship with Sydney 2000 would be more than that simply of an athlete and a major competition came three months prior to the Games. John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Committee, asked her out for lunch.
“I was wondering, ‘What is this all about?’,” Freeman recalled of the minutes before she was asked to be the one to light the Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremony. “It was one of those surreal moments. I was so caught up in my workouts and looking after my body in the best possible way ever and it came out of nowhere – a hard-to-prepare-for moment. I didn’t see it coming. I was really humbled, to be frank.
“And I was a little bit like, ‘Gee, c’mon, I understand if there is a change of plan here’.”
There was no change of plan. The breath-taking photographs of Freeman standing in front of a cascade of water lighting a flame that grew all around her and then lifted above her, leaving her seemingly floating in the middle of a towering waterfall, set the tone for an extraordinary Games. There is also a pleasing symmetry that ran right through to the photographs of Freeman performing in the 400m final 10 days later.
“It does look very similar, doesn’t it?” Freeman said of the bodysuit she wore to light the Flame and that in which she won Olympic gold. “The Ceremony one was just a lot thinner.”
The hooded running suit is such a definitive part of Freeman’s narrative but, for a naturally retiring person, it was an interesting choice to make.
“I felt I had nothing to lose,” she explained. “Of course I felt a little bit hesitant because it was so radical for me – you know, the hood and everything. And anyone who knows me knows I would rather not be in the limelight than in it. And when I thought about what life in those months before the Sydney Olympics would hold for me, common sense told me there would be a little bit of drama and theatre attached to my name, so wearing the suit would add to that.
“So, I had good reasons not to wear it but as soon as I wore it a couple of times in training it felt great. And then 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. I was cocooned in my own world and athletes want to be in that bubble, you are so single-minded. It felt right.”
So right that the now-45-year-old has often wondered why the racing suit concept did not catch on for others. The race itself is, understandably, a blur for Freeman, apart from a magical final stretch.
“I felt the track under the very tips of my toes and I’ll never forget that I felt like I was being carried, like a surfer on a wave. It was just that one and only time,” she said, a little wistfully.
Despite this, Freeman’s first reaction on crossing the line was, amusingly, not one of elation.
“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,” she said, with a chuckle.
Her winning mark of 49.11 was 0.48 seconds outside her personal best but no one among the record 112,524-capacity crowd inside the Olympic Stadium, or the millions watching around the world, shared her disappointment as she won Australia’s 100th Olympic gold medal.