OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

A Race for All Australia

Andrew Phillips in Sydney October 9 2000
OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

A Race for All Australia

Andrew Phillips in Sydney October 9 2000

A Race for All Australia

OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Andrew Phillips in Sydney

When Cathy Freeman took the starting line at the mammoth Stadium Australia last week, it was a wonder she could move her feet—let alone scamper 400 metres in a shade over 49 seconds. All of Australia placed on her slight frame a crushing burden of expectations.

She had to win gold, to be sure, but she had to do much more. Somehow, if the newspapers and breathless commentators were to be believed, Freeman had to redeem her country and assuage its majority’s nagging guilt over the plight of its Aboriginal people.

It was, one newspaper proclaimed, the race that would “stop a nation.”

Stop the nation it did. At 8:10 p.m. on Sept. 25, there was a collective clenching, an almost audible intake of breath as Freeman took her mark, outfitted in the aerodynamic green, white and gold bodysuit that made her look as if she were running straight into the future. Nowhere were expectations higher than the Yarra Bay Sailing Club, a congenial establishment in Sydney’s southern suburbs where folks gather to drink, work the gambling machines and (now and then) do a spot of sailing on Botany Bay. About half the members are Aboriginal, and as Freeman took off they were willing her to win. “You go, girl!” cried Assan Timbery, leader of the local Aboriginal community, as the race flashed across the club’s TV screens. “Come on, Cath!” There were damp eyes and satisfied smiles after Freeman won—exactly 49.11 seconds later—and claimed the first Olympic gold ever won by an Aboriginal Australian. Then there was minute analysis of the symbolism in her race: how her shoes incorporate the Aboriginal colours of black, red and yellow; how she threw them off and took her victory lap barefoot in traditional Aboriginal style; and how she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags as the crowd roared its approval. “Cath’s done it for all of us,” said Pat Russell, 60, at the Yarra club as she dabbed tears from her eyes.

It was no surprise that Aboriginals hailed Freeman, whose story reflects many of their recent wounds. Her grandmother was taken from her parents to be raised in state institutions— part of the so-called stolen generation of Aboriginal children separated from their people between about 1910 and 1970 in a misguided effort to save them from addiction and endemic poverty. Aboriginals want a formal apology from the

federal government; Prime Minister John Howard refuses on the grounds that this generation cannot accept responsibility for earlier abuses. “That makes me really cranky,” says Barbara Keeley-Simms, a club member whose own father was separated from his family. “They’re denying history.” Freeman has not been overdy political, disappointing Aboriginal activists. But in July she told a British interviewer that Howard’s government is “insensitive” for refusing to apologize. “All that pain, it’s very strong, and generations have felt it,” she said. “There’s a sense of sadness and anger.” On her right arm she has a tattoo that reads simply but ambiguously: “Cos I’m free.” Freeman shares little of the daily reality of Australia’s 386,000 Aboriginals, who make up about two per cent of the country’s population. They suffer higher-than-average rates of addiction, suicide, poverty, disease and homelessness. She has endorsement contracts worth millions; is married to an American Nike executive, Alexander Bodecker; and has homes in Australia and California. Still, the organizers’ decision to have her light the Olympic cauldron, and the national ecstasy that greeted her win, was hailed as a sign of “reconciliation” with Aboriginals—though what exactly that meant was left conspicuously unclear. Freeman herself was just busy racing—making history rather than speculating about it. ED

Cathy Freeman carried the weight of a nation to Olympic glory