As Cathy Freeman powered around the track at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia held a collective breath.
Twenty-seven-year-old Freeman – with long, elegant strides that made running look almost effortless – carried more pressure than any other athlete at those Games as she ran the 400m final.
But pressure, the kind that could have caused another athlete to buckle, only seemed to spur Freeman. Twenty years ago today, she became Australia’s first Aboriginal athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal.
“My running has allowed me to walk in a light, to be in a light, to live in a light that comes from within. It’s carried me to these places that I never thought imaginable,” Freeman said in an ABC Australia documentary called “Freeman” released this month in commemoration of the anniversary. She was unavailable to comment for this story.
Freeman was born in Mackay, a city in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef. She grew up in a tight-knit family, one of five children. Her paternal great-grandfather served in World War I, but because of his Aboriginal heritage, his military service was not recognized when he returned home. He was not offered a land grant given to white soldiers. Her maternal great-grandfather was sent to a penal colony on Palm Island with his wife and children after refusing to sign over his paycheck to local authorities.
“I was a kid who was quite embarrassed to be a Black kid, an Indigenous kid. I grew up with that self-image,” she said in “Freeman.” “I could never understand why, when I smiled at someone, they wouldn’t smile back. … It used to quietly really devastate me.”
Her stepfather, Bruce, encouraged Freeman to run as a child, and to harbor big dreams.
“To put up on the wall, ‘I am the greatest athlete,’” she told ABC.
At 16, Freeman became the first Aboriginal woman to win a Commonwealth Games title as part of a 4x100m relay in Auckland, New Zealand. She made her Olympic debut in 1992, eliminated in the 400m quarterfinals.
Before leaving for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia, Freeman packed an Aboriginal flag in her suitcase. The black, yellow and red flag, first flown on National Aborigines Day in 1971, represents the Aboriginal people, the sun and spiritual connection to the land.
After winning the 400m, Freeman wrapped herself in the Aboriginal flag before taking the Australian flag and bringing both around the track in a victory lap. Arthur Tunstall, the head of the Australian delegation, was outraged.
But Freeman was undeterred, carrying both flags again after winning the 200m.
“I wanted to shout, ‘Look at me. Look at my skin. I’m Black, and I’m the best,’” Freeman told ABC. “There’s no more shame.”
The gesture ignited national debate, shining light on the racism and repression Indigenous Australians faced at home.
“There’s this mural in Melbourne with traditional Aboriginal people with chains around their necks, being treated like animals,” Freeman told ABC. “I draw strength from those sorts of paintings, which is pretty much what the flag represents, all the struggles, I suppose, and hardships my people have had to deal with.”
Freeman won a silver medal in the 400m at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, beaten by France’s Marie-Jose Perec, the defending champion from 1992.
A few weeks after the Olympics, Freeman topped Perec at a meet in Brussels. Perec focused on the 200m the following year and was out with health issues in 1998, while Freeman won back-to-back world titles in 1997 and 1999 in her absence. Going into the Sydney Olympics, the two hadn’t raced each other in four years.
Freeman made no effort to conceal the fact that Perec was a major source of motivation.
“It was always her in the front of my mind and the front of my heart that made me do the things I did – training the way I did, aspiring the way I did, and dreaming the way I did,” Freeman told ABC.
Perec was entered in the 400m in Sydney but left the city under mysterious circumstances before her race. Perec, according to a New York Times story at the time, vented her frustrations about the Australian media.
“I have the impression that everything has been made up in order to destabilize me,” she said.
One front-page headline read “Mademoiselle La Chicken: Perec flees before facing Cathy.”
“My heart dropped,” Freeman told ABC of Perec leaving Sydney. “My heart drops still now. I knew that I was up for it. She knew it, and I knew it, but we’ll never know because it didn’t happen. That race will never happen.”
Freeman, meanwhile, faced relentless pressure leading up to the 400m final. Newspaper headlines read, “The single gold all Australia craves” and “Running for her country, her people, herself.”
Freeman’s friend Michael Johnson – a four-time Olympic gold medalist who won the 200m-400m double four years earlier in Atlanta – understood the weight and importance of performing at a home Olympics.
“I sort of lived that moment with her, because it was four years after I was the face of the Games in Atlanta in a home Games,” Johnson said in August. “It was her time four years later in Sydney. We talked a lot in the lead-up to that and I tried to advise her as much as I could of how to deal with that pressure.”
On Sept. 15, Freeman lit the Olympic cauldron to open the Sydney Games. Ten days later, after easing off her warm-up clothes to reveal a sleek Nike body suit, she settled into her blocks for the most anticipated event of the Games.
Her coach, Peter Fortune, had jotted down a race plan on a piece of paper, with notes like “fast start for 50m,” “move from very fast to fast relaxed to the 200m,” “pick up on bend a little to make sure of your position,” and “go hard from about 120 to go and hold form to finish line.”
Johnson was at Stadium Australia that night waiting for his own 400m final, which would take place just after the women’s event. Instead of waiting in the call room, he left to go into the stadium, beneath the stands, so he could watch Freeman race. His seven competitors followed.
“We all just stood there,” Johnson said. “We’re fierce rivals, and we stood there to watch that race because it was just that intriguing. You could hear the crowd, and everybody knew that this was the race that everybody wanted to see, and we wanted to see it, too.”
In the noise of more than 112,000 spectators, Freeman found quiet.
“I remember in my warm-up feeling really relaxed, and all of the sudden the words, ‘just do what I know,’ came into my head,” Freeman recalled to NBC on The Olympic Show a year after the Games. “And so, that was that. I went out and did what I knew.”
Freeman trailed off the start, careful not to overexert herself too early. She closed in on the last curve and powered ahead on the final stretch, crossing the line at 49.11.
When she looks back on the race, “I feel like I’m being protected. My ancestors were the first people to walk on this land. It’s a really powerful force. Those other girls were always going to have to come up against my ancestors,” she told ABC.
Fiercely competitive with herself, Freeman was disappointed by her time. She knew she could run under 49 seconds. But her win remains one of the most significant moments of the Games, and the image of Freeman circling the track in a barefoot victory lap with the Aboriginal and Australian flags is indelible.
“The power of the emotion of everybody that night was just amazing,” Freeman told NBC on The Olympic Show. “Maybe some massive cosmic explosion took place in that stadium. … It was something I don’t think I’ll ever, ever experience again.”
That night at the track, later called “Magic Monday,” would go down as one of the most memorable in Olympic history.
After Freeman’s victory, Johnson became the first man to win consecutive 400m titles. American Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault competition, topping Russian-born Australian Tatiana Grigorieva. Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards, the world record holder in the triple jump, won a long awaited gold medal in his fourth Games. The men’s 10,000m came down to a head-to-head sprint in the last 100 meters, as Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie edged Kenyan Paul Tergat by .09 of a second after 25 laps around the track.
Freeman, who initially targeted the next Olympics in Athens, ultimately retired in 2003, citing a lack of passion and motivation to continue running at the highest level.
Her influence and legacy stretched far beyond the track, continuing to resonate with those who hoped to follow her lead.
On Sept. 25, 2000, 12-year-old Patty Mills sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, his stuffed Sydney mascots and the Aboriginal flag on display. Mills and his mother had decorated the room in the Australian colors.
Years before he became the first Indigenous Australian to win an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs, before representing Australia as an Olympian himself, Mills readied for Freeman’s race like it was his own.
He doesn’t remember much of the race – “maybe because I was screaming my face off trying to push her along” – but he does recall happy tears that followed as he watched with his parents.
“What Cathy never knew at that moment was that there was a little 12-year-old boy … that was so inspired that he was fully committed to becoming just like her,” Mills wrote in an email. “I was inspired by the way she represented herself and her culture. She was clearly very proud of who she was and never ashamed of it and because of this, I was inspired by the way she handled adversity.”
Freeman, now 47, is still amazed by the legacy of her triumph 20 years ago.
“People still light up when they talk about that night in September. They sparkle, and we’re talking about something that happened so long ago,” she told ABC.
“The lovely thing about this particular story is a lot of people were involved in it.”
OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.
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