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
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)