Australia tells golden girl Freeman: `Thanks for the memories'

Cathy Freeman carries the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her lap of honour, after winning the 400m gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. — Pic. REUTERS-

Australia hailed Cathy Freeman as one of the country's all-time great athletes as its champion announced she was hanging up her running spikes.

Australia hailed Cathy Freeman as one of the country's all-time great athletes as its champion announced she was hanging up her running spikes.

Freeman's decision to retire was front-page news in sports-mad Australia, with most commentators reluctantly accepting her assessment that she could never top her achievement in winning the 400 metres Olympic gold in front of her home crowd at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Prime Minister John Howard said the Aboriginal runner's Sydney victory was "one of the great sporting events of our generation."

"I wish her well, I thank her for all the joy and thrills she's brought to her sport and to Australia and particularly the credit that her dignified performances have brought to the indigenous community of our country," Howard told reporters in Tokyo.

Freeman's 13-year career included the 400m gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a silver medal in the same at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and two world championships titles.

Along the way, she became the first Aborigine to win an Olympic medal and raised the profile of indigenous athletes by proudly displaying the Aboriginal flag in her victory celebrations.

But her career has been patchy over the past three years and her retirement came as little surprise.

Former Olympic heptathlete Jane Flemming said she was almost glad Freeman had decided to bow out, as she was too great an athlete to have her career "fade out" with a string of sub-standard performances.

"In some respects it's better for her to retire when you know, pretty much the last race everyone saw her run was in Sydney," Flemming told ABC Radio.

Mexico's Ana Guevara, the favourite to win the women's 400 metres title at this year's world championships, wished Freeman luck in her retirement.

"It's surprising news because you never expect your main rival to give up," said Guevara, the current world number one.

Adrian McGregor, the runner's biographer, said there was no physical reason preventing Freeman, 30, from remaining competitive but there was no point continuing if she had lost the drive to be the best.

He said Freeman had effectively achieved her destiny with the Sydney win, which lifted her to the status of sporting icon in her homeland.

Freeman stormed home to win the race then sank to her knees in shock in front of 100,000 screaming fans before draping herself with both the Aboriginal and Australian flags.

"Obviously she's discovered now she just doesn't have the hunger and who would after you saw what happened at Sydney 2000. She did it all for us then."

Freeman, who has previously hinted at a political career after retirement, is expected to use her profile to lobby for improved rights for Aborigines.

The leader of the centre left opposition Labor Party Simon Crean said Freeman could use a political career to promote reconciliation between Australia's black and white communities.

But her potential as a justice campaigner may be limited by her shy nature, which has often left her looking uncomfortable in the spotlight.

This was particularly apparent when she helped nurse her husband Sandy Bodecker through a bout of throat cancer and the couple's subsequent split after he beat the disease.

Her reticence was criticised by Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine, who said Freeman would be remembered as "a good runner" but not someone who spoke up for her people.

But Howard rejected the jibe, labelling Freeman "a wonderful Australian." Others said Freeman has done far more for her people with her quiet style than Mundine ever did with his bluster.

Her training partner, middle-distance runner Tamsyn Lewis, said public pressure had taken its toll on Freeman and probably played a part in her decision to retire.

"You can't blame her for being a little bit tired and losing motivation," Lewis said.

"When you saw her sit down after that race in Sydney it was just relief, relief that was showing across her face, not enjoyment, not ecstatic that she'd won the gold medal."