The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Freeman, the face of reconciliation
- The grace with which she managed pressure set her apart from other athletes

Sydney: Cathy Freeman’s defining moment almost passed her by. As 100,000 flashbulbs lit up the Sydney night and the Olympic stadium roar reached a deafening crescendo, Freeman seemed oblivious to what was going on around her.

She sank to the track and sat down, silent, unaware of the mayhem around her as the weight of the world slowly lifted from her shoulders.

She sat for another minute, longer than it had taken her to win the 400m gold medal, before rising to her feet and flashing a smile that said more about how she felt than the millions of words ever written about her.

“I just had to sit down and try to make myself feel normal again,” Freeman said later. “I just had to be alone for a moment to think about everything that had happened.”

Freeman’s win remains one of the most enduring moments in recent Olympic history and certainly one of the most symbolic in Australian sport, not because of anything special she did on track but because of how she went about it.

The shy, slender Aboriginal girl who began her athletics career running bare feet along dry river beds, went into the Olympics as a red-hot favourite after winning the last two world championships and taking silver at Atlanta in 1996.

But it was the enormous pressure that she was under and the grace with which she dealt with it that set her apart.

Not only did she have to carry the hopes of Australia’s track and field team at an Olympics on home soil but also the aspirations of an entire people.

As Australia’s most prominent Aboriginal sports person, Freeman had been thrust into the country’s 200-year struggle for reconciliation between Blacks and Whites when she carried the Aboriginal flag on a lap of honour during the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada — in breach of team rules.

It became a big issue and Freeman accepted her role as the face of reconciliation although she was never totally comfortable with it.

She had spent most of the two years leading up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics training and competing in the United States and Europe but any hopes she had of escaping attention once she arrived home were extinguished the moment she was selected to light the Olympic flame.

It was another symbolic moment for Australia’s indigenous people but served only to add to the pressure on Freeman.

More drama was to follow when her great rival, Marie-Jose Perec of France, fled Sydney saying she was being harassed. Somehow Freeman managed to block out all the distractions, winning each of her heats to qualify fastest.

Dressed in a space-age bodysuit, Freeman was a picture of concentration for the final.

When the starter’s gun fired, Freeman made a quick getaway but found herself behind Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham went the field swept through the final bend for home and it seemed the pressure had finally caught up with her. But Freeman found another gear and sprinted clear of her rivals to win gold in 49.11 seconds before slumping to the track. (Reuters)

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