September 27, 2000

Carrying a Nation's Burden

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A little after 10:20 Monday night, my heart just sank as I watched Cathy Freeman struggle into the turn halfway through her widely-anticipated 400-meter race.

It was supposed to be her night at the Olympics, the night that she finally captured gold in the 400, the night that she put the weight of Australia’s racial friction on her shoulders, and as former sprinter Raelen Boyle aptly put it in the Daily Telegraph, “the night Cathy cops the brunt of 19 million screaming Aussies.”

And there she was — with only 200 meters to go — fading behind an undaunted Katharine Marry of Britain in what the Sydney Morning Herald deemed “the race of our lives” (without a hint of understatement).

Hers is a story that’s flooded the media in recent days, but one certainly worth repeating. Freeman stopped being just Australia’s star 400-meter runner quite a while ago. Ever since she draped herself with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during a victory lap following her win at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Freeman has taken on the added burden of being a national icon. Aussies look to her as the defining symbol in their desire to finally reconcile differences between the indigenous Aborigines and the majority white population.

And with 112,524 athletics-mad Australians cramming the seats in Stadium Australia and another 10 million watching anxiously on television, the nation needed Freeman to win.

Like a lead weight on her chest, the pressure on Freeman must have only multiplied as tidal waves of camera flashes swept through the stadium when she leapt out of the blocks at the sound of the gun.

But there she was losing, in a race that would define a nation, a race in which a gold would presumably ease racial tensions and a silver could only lead to continental soul-searching.

Decked out in a flashy aero-dynamic body suit, Freeman accelerated through the turn into the homestretch, nudging herself neck-and-neck with Marry. Flinging her arms wildly and pumping her legs awkwardly, Freeman — usually a model of beauty on the track — gradually put space between herself and Marry. First a meter, then another. By the time she leaned at the tape, Freeman was a full three meters clear.

And all of Australia breathed a monumental sigh of relief.

She had expected to win, and the country expected her to win (especially with the mystifying exit of co-favorite Marie Jose-Perec).

But as she trotted around the oval taking a much-deserved victory lap with the flag of her people and that of her country while everyone in the stands seemed reduced to tears of joy, it was the realization that she’d lived up to Australia’s expectations that most profoundly struck Freeman.

“It was just a relief and I was totally overwhelmed because I could feel the crowd all around and all over me,” she told the Telegraph. “I just felt everyone’s happiness and joy.

“I just had to sit down and make myself feel normal and comfortable.”

Rest assured, Cathy Freeman will never again be normal. In time her victory during these Sydney Games may be forgotten, or at least pushed back in Australia’s collective memory.

However, what Freeman has done for the Aboriginal cause, and for Australia, will likely be etched in stone. For a people who endured apartheid-like harassment until the ’70s and received suffrage only in the ’60s, she has become something of a guiding light for the Aborigines, ingratiating them for the first into the fray of mainstream Australian society. And for the whites, she has served as bridge to understanding and accepting the indigenous population.

“I know I have made a lot of people happy from a lot of different backgrounds who call Australia home,” she said in the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’m sure what has happened and what I symbolize will make a lot of difference to people’s attitudes.”

Freeman’s win netted Australia its 100th gold medal in Olympic competition, but more importantly it earned the nation the first one won by an athlete of Aboriginal descent.

Later this week, Freeman could possibly have a scintillating duel with Marion Jones in the final of the 200 meters, but as she stood gallantly wearing her gold medal on the podium on Monday evening, singing Advance Australia Fair, no one in Stadium Australia no one seemed to concerned by that.

What Australia had fretted about and prayed for had finally resolved itself to everyone’s content.

In lighting the torch during the Opening Ceremonies and conquering the 400, Freeman has already made these games a success for her country, shoving aside the usual political controversy that characterizes the Aboriginal question in Australia and bringing to the forefront the notion that reconciliation is a possibility, if not a likelihood.

“Blacks whites and whites, everybody, was tickled pink by the win,” aptly summed Ross Paddon, manager of the Amaroo Tavern in Moree.

As heroic as Jesse Owens four gold medals in Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936, Freeman’s victory is, in every sense of the phrase, the epitome of the spirit of the Olympics.

There will always be the Ian Thorpes, the Steven Redgraves, the Alexei Nemovs who make the Olympic Games spectacular.

But there are very few Cathy Freemans who make them beautiful.

Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj