Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman’s gold medal milestone echoes 20 years later

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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.

MORE: How Cathy Freeman came to light the Olympic cauldron

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How Cathy Freeman came to light the Olympic cauldron in Sydney

Cathy Freeman
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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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Fifteen memorable moments from Sydney 2000 Olympics

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On the 15th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, here are 15 chronological memories:

Sept. 15 — Cathy Freeman lights Olympic cauldron

The cauldron lighting proved one of the most poignant in Olympic history, with World 400m champion Cathy Freeman being handed the torch after a final relay in the stadium with all female torchbearers, marking 100 years of women’s participation at the Olympics.

The choice of Freeman was also noteworthy as she’s Aboriginal. She was recently reunited with the suit she wore on Sept. 15, 2000, after it disappeared from her dressing room after she took it off later that night.

Sept. 16 — Australians smash the Americans like guitars in 4x100m relay

Perhaps the most anticipated U.S.-Australia showdown came on the first night of medal competition in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.

Before the Olympics, outspoken U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. wrote, “We will smash them like guitars,” in an otherwise complimentary piece about Australia and its swimmers.

Hall would anchor the U.S. in the relay, which it had never lost at the Olympics (excluding the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games). He would face Australia’s new superstar, the 17-year-old Ian Thorpe, who earlier that night won the 400m free in world-record time.

Hall outsplit Thorpe on the anchor leg, but Thorpe held on for the win, sending the Sydney Aquatic Centre into a frenzy. Most memorably, bald Michael Klim, who broke the 100m free world record leading off, led an Aussie air guitar strum session after Thorpe touched the wall.

Sept. 18-19 — Michael Phelps’ Olympic debut

It barely made headlines at the time, but the 15-year-old who finished fifth in the 200m butterfly in his first Olympic event would eventually become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Michael Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer since 1932 in Sydney and showed his youth by taking the wrong athlete credential to the pool and forgetting to tie his swimsuit strings before his first race. But the talent was evident.

“Boy, this guy’s going to be great one day,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast.

FLASHBACK: Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Sept. 19 — Eric the Eel

Equatorial Guinea’s Eric Moussambani captivated the Sydney Aquatic Centre as he swam alone in the first heat of the 100m freestyle. Moussambani struggled to complete the distance, eventually touching the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history.

Eric the Eel received thunderous applause from the crowd recognizing the Olympic value of not the triumph, but the struggle. Not to conquer, but to take part.

Misty Hyman
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Sept. 20 — Misty upsets Madame Butterfly

The U.S. bettered Australia in the women’s 200m butterfly, when Misty Hyman stunned heavy gold-medal favorite Susie O’Neill. O’Neill, nicknamed “Madame Butterfly,” entered the race as the reigning Olympic and World champion and the world-record holder. So beloved in Australia, the butterfly was referred to as “the Susie stroke.”

Hyman, in her only career Olympic race, summoned an Olympic and American record swim that was .07 off O’Neill’s world record. O’Neill claimed silver, seven tenths of a second behind.

Sept. 21 — Controversial women’s all-around final

It’s a night many gymnastics fans choose not to remember. The women’s all-around final was won by Andreea Raducan in a Romanian podium sweep, which could have been historic.

However, Raducan was stripped of the crown later in the Sydney Games after testing positive for a banned substance from cold-medicine pills given to her by a team doctor. The blame fell on the doctor, and the women who were upgraded in the final medal standings all reportedly said Raducan was the deserving winner.

Also, during the all-around final, it was discovered the vault was set too low. It had to be reset, and all gymnasts who had competed on the faulty apparatus were given the option of re-doing their vaults. Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who had the highest all-around score in qualifying, fell on the mis-measured vault and then again on her trademark apparatus, uneven bars. She chose not to re-do her vault. It wouldn’t have mattered. She finished 10th.

Sept. 22-30 — The drive for five

Marion Jones was the biggest American star of the Games, though she would be stripped of all five of her medals, including golds in the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay, after a 2007 admission that she used performance-enhancing drugs leading up to Sydney.

Sept. 24 — Laura Wilkinson goes from eighth to gold

Only one non-Chinese won an individual diving title in Sydney. The shocking effort came from Texan Laura Wilkinson.

Wilkinson jumped from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to take platform gold. She prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training. The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving medal.

Sept. 25 — Dunk de la mort

The U.S. men’s basketball team looked human at times during the Games, beating Lithuania by two points in the semifinals and France by 10 in the final. But not Vince Carter in one highlight.

Carter, nicknamed “Half-Man, Half-Amazing,” posterized 7-foot, 2-inch Frederic Weis in a preliminary-round game against the French with a slam that became known as “Dunk de la mort” (Dunk of Death). Weis had been drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1999 but never played in the NBA.

Sept. 25 — U.S. softball completes comeback

The Americans came to Sydney riding a 110-game winning streak, but that was snapped by Japan in group play. The next day, the U.S. lost to China. The day after that, the U.S. lost to Australia.

Pitcher Lisa Fernandez led the team in a cleansing, jumping in the shower together with their uniforms on, in hopes of breaking the curse. It worked. The U.S. won its next five games, including beating China, Australia and Japan in the medal round to repeat as Olympic champion.

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Sept. 25 — Magic Monday

The Olympic cauldron lighter Freeman captured 400m gold in front of a reported more than 110,000 spectators at Stadium Australia as part of perhaps the greatest single day of competition in one sport in Olympic history. Magic Monday, they called it.

Also that night, Michael Johnson won his final individual Olympic race (men’s 400m), Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault, British world-record holder Jonathan Edwards won his first gold medal in his fourth Olympics and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie beat Kenyan rival Paul Tergat by .09 of a second in a furious final sprint in the 10,000m.

9/25/00: Magic Monday at Sydney Olympics

Sept. 27 — Miracle on the Mat

Maybe the biggest gold-medal favorite going into the Olympics was Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, who had not lost a match in 13 years and not been scored upon in six.

The chiseled Russian made it to the Sydney final, seeking his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. There, he would be beaten 1-0 by Wyoming farm boy Rulon Gardner, who celebrated by doing a cartwheel and somersault on the mat.

Sept. 27 — Miracle on Grass

The most famous name on the U.S. baseball team of major-league castoffs and minor-league prospects was its manager, Tommy Lasorda.

In the gold-medal game, the Americans shocked Cuba, which had won all 18 of its games en route to gold medals in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments in 1992 and 1996. Ben Sheets pitched a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 victory.

MORE: Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team

Sept. 28 — Best women’s soccer game ever?

In a thrilling gold-medal game, Norway upset the reigning Olympic and World Cup champion U.S. 3-2 with a sudden-death goal in the 102nd minute after the Americans had forced extra time with a stoppage-time score. It’s the only Olympic loss for the U.S. women’s soccer team in five tournaments.

Norway’s Dagny Mellgren scored the winner after a ricocheted ball hit her left arm, causing some to say it merited a handball call.

Oct. 1 — ‘Best Olympic Games ever’

The Closing Ceremony included Greg Norman hitting soft golf balls into the crowd, Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, the Bananas in Pajamas and Elle Macpherson walking a runway on a float resembling a camera.

More memorably, Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Sydney 2000 to be “the best Olympic Games ever” in the closing address of his final Olympics as IOC president.