In an an­grier age, 20 years on, Freeman’s mes­sage still rings true

Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal’s gold at the Syd­ney Olympics helped fur­ther rec­on­cil­i­a­tion de­spite big­otry’s per­sis­tence

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer

Per­haps it was the child­like bite of the lip as the weight of the achieve­ment bore down on her. Or the green-and-gold space-age body­suit that looked as if it had been ripped from the pages of a Cap­tain Amer­ica comic. Or the Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal flag that she un­furled on her lap of hon­our, its sym­bolic de­pic­tion of the red earth re­in­forc­ing what she called “the con­nec­tion of In­dige­nous peo­ples, in the­ory and in essence, to the land”. All these mem­o­ries and more com­bine to make Cathy Freeman’s 400 me­tres vic­tory at the Syd­ney Olympics, 20 years ago to­day, one of en­dur­ing res­o­nance.

More than 112,000 peo­ple had thronged in­side Sta­dium Aus­tralia on the night of Sept 25, 2000, al­most 0.6 per cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion at the time. The na­tion’s col­lec­tive gaze was fixed on the ex­ploits of a fiercely de­ter­mined but some­times frag­ile young woman from the Kuku Yalanji peo­ple, na­tive to the rain­for­est of far north Queens­land, whose tal­ents sug­gested hers would be the defin­ing tri­umph of her home Games. Aus­tralians were smit­ten by her strange mix of steel and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, by what for­mer sprinter Rae­lene Boyle de­scribed as her “beau­ti­ful vague­ness”.

To the as­ton­ish­ment of her mother, Ce­cilia, the open­ing cer­e­mony cul­mi­nated in the spec­ta­cle of Freeman, framed by a ring of fire and a cas­cade of wa­ter, light­ing the Olympic flame. It was im­mac­u­lately scripted, al­though if you looked closely at her white suit you could see that the five Olympic rings had been sewn up­side down. All was set fair, in the 400m fi­nal, for her to de­liver a jolt of sport­ing elec­tric­ity. In the space of 49.11sec, she did so, her surge away from Ja­maica’s Lor­raine Gra­ham com­mit­ted to pos­ter­ity by the com­men­tary of Bruce McA­vaney: “What a leg­end. What a cham­pion.”

While a fiercely pri­vate per­son, Freeman has since learnt to ap­pre­ci­ate the wider sig­nif­i­cance of her feat. “I have tried each day, each year I get older, to re­spect the way that peo­ple re­late to that one race in Septem­ber 2000,” she says. “It is so in­tense and it is so hon­est. The whole story has be­come larger than who I am.” In­deed, the sight of Freeman wrapped in two flags has of­ten been iden­ti­fied as a sig­na­ture mo­ment in the forg­ing of mod­ern Aus­tralia.

It was in 1992 that Paul Keat­ing, the then prime min­is­ter, had de­liv­ered his land­mark Red­fern speech to ac­knowl­edge the dam­age of white set­tle­ment on In­dige­nous cul­ture and so­ci­ety. “We took the lands and smashed the tra­di­tional way of life,” he de­clared. “We brought the dis­eases and the al­co­hol. We com­mit­ted the mur­ders. We took the chil­dren from their moth­ers. It was our ig­no­rance and our prej­u­dice.” Just eight years later, Freeman, whose fam­ily had them­selves been among the dis­pos­sessed, won her coun­try’s most cher­ished Olympic gold.

In 2020, we need no re­mind­ing of how rapidly and dra­mat­i­cally his­tory can shift. But Freeman’s story high­lights the dan­gers of end­ing up on the wrong side. At the 1994 Com­mon­wealth Games in Vic­to­ria, Canada, Arthur Tun­stall, her chef de mis­sion, pre­sumed to speak for the ma­jor­ity when he

‘I have tried each day, each year I get older, to re­spect the way that peo­ple re­late to that one race’

lam­basted her for parad­ing with both flags. “She should have car­ried the Aus­tralian flag first up, and we should not have seen the Abo­rig­i­nal flag at all,” he raged. Freeman kept a dig­ni­fied si­lence, save to say her mes­sage was: Look at me. I’m black, and I’m the best.

Tun­stall’s re­ac­tion smacked of a white man con­vinced that the griev­ances of his ath­lete, whose strug­gles he could hardly be­gin to com­pre­hend, had no place be­ing aired on the in­ter­na­tional stage. But what was once a main­stream view in Aus­tralia soon be­came un­palat­able. By the time the Olympics ar­rived in 2000, the cel­e­bra­tion of In­dige­nous her­itage was a core theme. So pro­foundly were no­tions of so­cial jus­tice re­shaped that, by 2008, the Aus­tralian govern­ment de­liv­ered a for­mal apol­ogy for the forced re­movals of In­dige­nous chil­dren by fed­eral and state agen­cies. Freeman’s glory was an in­te­gral piece of a greater trans­for­ma­tion.

Big­otry did not die out as a con­se­quence of her ac­com­plish­ments. The sub­se­quent or­deal of Adam Goodes, the Aus­tralian rules foot­baller de­rided as an “ape” in 2013 for his In­dige­nous an­ces­try, is tes­ta­ment to that. But so many chil­dren stud­ied Freeman’s ex­am­ple on that sparkling Syd­ney night and de­cided that they wanted to be just like her. Patty Mills, an NBA player with Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der lin­eage, was 12 at the time and re­cently re­flected: “I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘I want to be like her on the track, I want to be like her off the track.’ ”

It is a far an­grier time to­day. Amer­i­can ath­letes take the knee and are con­demned by their own pres­i­dent as “sons of bitches”. Al­ready, Thomas Bach, pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, is seek­ing to ward off the prospect of Black Power salutes on Tokyo podi­ums next sum­mer. But when Freeman car­ried those two flags on to the Syd­ney track, she was de­liv­er­ing less a mes­sage of protest than a plea for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Hers is a sen­ti­ment worth heed­ing: that when ath­letes cham­pion causes be­yond them­selves, it need not al­ways be mis­con­strued as a po­lit­i­cal state­ment. It can also be a vi­tal and nec­es­sary cat­a­lyst for change.

Golden girl: Cathy Freeman wins the 400 me­tres fi­nal at the Syd­ney Olympics in 2000, when she played a lead­ing role in the open­ing cer­e­mony, and marks the oc­ca­sion 20 years later (be­low)

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