As some of my blogs already in this series has shown, it’s challenging enough to be a favourite for a race, or for an athlete to be so finally tuned to peaking at the right time to achieve a personal best. What must it be like for those favourite to win before their home crowd?
SYDNEY 2000: CATHY’S RACE IS OUR RACE
I was one of the 112,000 people in Stadium Australia on the evening of Cathy Freeman’s 400m final in September 2000. It remains one of the most electrifying moments in sport that I’ve ever experienced.
What was clear from the close-ups on the big screens – and confirmed by watching replays umpteen times – was the enormous pressure Cathy was under.
It wasn’t just about her being Australia’s only hope for a Gold Medal in the track and field competition. She came into the final not having lost a 400m race in the previous twelve months since she returned from injury in 1998. With Marie-Jose Perec having fled the country, Cathy’s opposition were good but not dangerous.
It was also about the weight of expectation that had been built around her, because Cathy Freeman wasn’t ‘just’ another great Australian athlete. She was a great ‘First Australian’ athlete.
In a sense, she made many white Australians feel better about our history with Indigenous Australians, especially at a time when race relations were prominent.
This included relatively recent issues such as a landmark High Court ruling known as the ‘Mabo Decision’ giving native title land rights to Aboriginal Australians; a Royal Commission into the over-representation of Aboriginal deaths in custody; the ongoing scars of the Stolen Generation (of whom Cathy’s grandmother was one) outlined in the Bringing them Home report; and planned Indigenous protests and boycotts at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Cathy Freeman was a symbol of how a young Aboriginal person could succeed.
When you got off a flight at Sydney international airport, the first giant billboard you’d see welcoming you to the country was Cathy Freeman’s smiling face.
It was Cathy who lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony, after she had accepted the flame following a final circuit of the stadium by seven of Australia’s revered women athletes: Shirley Strickland, Marjorie Jackson, Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King.
All of that would undoubtedly have heaped even more pressure on her than if Perec, the Gold Medal winner to Cathy’s Silver in Atlanta, had stayed in the country and run.
As Cathy was introduced to the crowd before the race in her Nike space age body suit and running spikes in the colours of the Aboriginal flag, the cameras caught a close-up of her sighing, swallowing, puffing out her cheeks with nerves. Those of us in the stands cheered her mightily, but her nerves were also our nerves.
We need not have worried.
There was not one person in the stadium who was not watching Cathy’s race. We were joined by every competitor, every official and every judge. She went into the turn in a good position and emerged from the bend amongst the leaders. With 100m to go, she kicked it up a gear. With 60m to go, it was clear she had it won. More deafening noise. She powered-on in long strides to the finish line.
The crowd roared. And roared and roared.
Cathy sunk to her haunches. It wasn’t joy on her face. It was relief.
She was the pin-up girl of the nation. She was a symbol of what we hoped we could be. And she had done it. It was a truly wonderful performance.
When she grabbed the Australian flag – with its nod to its white settlement past containing the Union Jack – as well as the Aboriginal flag, for many it was illustrative of what Australia could be and ought to be. Reconciled. Equal. Celebrating achievement and talent.
Cathy Freeman is not just a great runner. She is a delightful, modest and humble person who has been active in promoting education for young Aboriginal children since her retirement from athletics. As an Aboriginal woman, she is both a role model and a standard-bearer in Australia.
Sixteen years after the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Cathy Freeman remains a powerful, unifying symbol – as well as reminder of how much farther we need to go to achieve the Australia she gave us a glimpse of on that night in September 2000.
Cathy’s race is our race.