Cathy Freeman
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How Cathy Freeman came to light the Olympic cauldron in Sydney

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About four months before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman and her husband dined with the Australian Olympic Committee president at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, where she was training.

Freeman, already a 400m world champion, the 1998 Australian of the Year as an Aboriginal icon, sensed that the Olympic boss, 50-year-old John Coates, was nervous. She soon learned why.

“We’d be really honored if you’d like to light the cauldron,” Coates revealed to her.

Freeman was shy, but she accepted without hesitation. Even when warned about the weight it could add to her race prep.

“John, I like pressure,” she reportedly said. “That’s when I perform at my best.”

About five seconds later, she turned back to him.

“I understand if you change your mind,” she added.

Coates didn’t.

“I preferred Cathy because hers was the biggest sport on the Olympic program, plus the Indigenous aspect,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that Coates also considered swimmer Susie O’Neill and field hockey player Rechelle Hawkes worthy, active candidates. “I thought awarding the honor to an Aboriginal athlete would send a wonderful signal to the world.”

The night before the Opening Ceremony, around 10:30, Freeman surreptitiously left a Sydney hotel. She boarded a car, was hidden under a blanket and taken to Stadium Australia for a rehearsal. The identity of the cauldron lighter remained a secret, though on this night the penultimate torch bearer — 1988 Olympic 400m hurdles gold medalist Debbie Flintoff-King — joined the need-to-know group, according to Australian media. (The whole scene was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali‘s rehearsal in Atlanta in 1996 with Janet Evans)

On Sept. 15, 2000, Freeman shivered in a wet, white body suit (with the Olympic rings sewn upside down), her right hand grasping a torch accommodating the Olympic Flame.

She stared ahead as tens of thousands of people fixed on her that night, plus millions more on TVs around the world. She just lit the cauldron, a ring of fire with a waterfall surrounding and sprinkling an athlete who already had a head cold.

“It was all really calm, and it was really hard to know exactly what was going on around me, because I was listening quite attentively to what was being said to me,” via an earpiece, Freeman told NBC Sports a year after the Games, noting an initial thought upon receiving the flame was a fear of falling down the five flights of stairs she first had to ascend. “So I didn’t really have time to soak up the atmosphere.”

A problem with the movable cauldron — it refused to lift toward the top of the stadium, stalled for four minutes — complicated her thoughts.

“Then I hear in the [earpiece] we’ve got a slight technical hitch, nothing that can’t be fixed,” said Freeman, the last of a lineup of all-female torch bearers in the stadium to mark 100 years of women at the Games. “Then it’s swearing, and the next thing is crazy swearing and screaming. I can’t repeat what I heard because it’s swearing.”

Turns out, those 240 seconds were precious. The cauldron was running out of gas needed to keep it lit until it reached the top of the stadium. Quite literally, it was nearly extinguished before the Games began, artistic director and producer David Atkins told Australia’s 7 Network for a 20th anniversary TV special.

Freeman didn’t know any of this. But she felt the need to give the impression that everything was fine. She remained standing, holding the torch out in front of her. She turned to the dark crowd at one point, then back to the cauldron. Finally, she descended the stairs just before it started moving and enveloped in a covering held by swimming legend Dawn Fraser.

“I actually was surprised when you couldn’t see my legs shaking,” she said. “I had a fantastic evening. I just wasn’t ready to let myself acknowledge what was going on because I had a race to win.”

Ten nights later, Freeman won the Olympic 400m final, dubbed “the race of our lives” by Australian media, in front of some 110,000 spectators. It came on arguably the greatest day of competition in one sport in Olympic history — Magic Monday at the Sydney Games.

Freeman, after her victory lap, was asked what she thought of when she saw the cauldron burning above the stadium.

“I lit that!” she said with a laugh with the Australian and Aboriginal flags around her neck. “It’s been a real kick. A very big honor to be asked to do it. I couldn’t reject, even though I gave the AOC every chance to change their mind. They had every confidence in me that I was the right person for the job.”

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Coco Gauff eliminated from French Open

Coco Gauff
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PARIS (AP) — American teenager Coco Gauff’s French Open debut ended in the second round after she double-faulted 19 times in a 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 loss to 159th-ranked qualifier Martina Trevisan.

Gauff double-faulted twice in the last game of the 2-hour, 11-minute match.

The 16-year-old Gauff has reached at least the third round at the other three major tournaments.

For Trevisan, a 26-year-old from Italy, this was her first victory in a Grand Slam match played to its conclusion.

She lost in the first round at the Australian Open this year in her first appearance at a major, then advanced Sunday at Roland Garros when her opponent, Camila Giorgi, stopped playing in the second set because of an injury.

Against Gauff, Trevisan kept yelling, “Yes!” and “Let’s go!” in Italian between points, then let out a high-pitched scream when the match ended.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier, Defending champion Rafael Nadal reached the third round by beating American player Mackenzie McDonald 6-1, 6-0, 6-3.

The No. 2-seeded Spaniard is looking to win his record-extending 13th French Open title and equal Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20 major titles overall.

Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to 95-2 when he sealed victory on his first match point. He next faces 74th-ranked Stefano Travaglia of Italy.

Sebastian Korda has now beaten two tour veterans in his first French Open.

After eliminating Andreas Seppi in his opening main draw match, the 20-year-old American qualifier took out 21st-seeded John Isner in the second round with a 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win.

A former junior world No. 1 and winner of the boys title at the 2018 Australian Open — and the son of 1992 French Open finalist Petr Korda — Korda broke Isner’s normally dominant serve five times.

The No. 213-ranked Korda will next face either Mikhail Kukushkin or qualifier Pedro Martinez on Friday.

Also, No. 27-seeded American Taylor Fritz reached the third round by serving 16 aces in a straight-set victory over Radu Albot.

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Final postponed

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The Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international figure skating competition, will not take place as scheduled in December in Beijing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The International Skating Union announced Wednesday that the Final was postponed.

There were “a number of logistical points raised by potentially participating teams that meant that hosting the competitions on the scheduled dates (close to the end of year holidays and national championships) would have impacted on the number of participants, given the potential need to quarantine on returning to their home country,” according to the ISU.

The ISU is “evaluating the continuation” of the upcoming season and possible rescheduling of the competition in China, which doubles as a 2022 Beijing Olympic test event.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December after the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the biggest indicator of Olympic and world championships medal prospects.

The Grand Prix Series is still scheduled to start with Skate America in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

Fields have not been announced, but skaters are restricted to compete at the event in their home nation or in or near their training location.

The ISU also announced that the remaining World Cup short track speed skating stops in 2020 were postponed or canceled — Seoul and Beijing, both in December.

Previously, the first short track World Cups in November were canceled. All four of the long-track speed skating World Cups scheduled this fall were also canceled.

The next scheduled World Cup short- or long-track events are in February.

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