Cathy Freeman - A champion in many ways

Cathy Freeman of Australia (1110) crosses the finish line to win the women’s 400 metres gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Cathy Freeman of Australia (1110) crosses the finish line to win the women’s 400 metres gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

As she jogged up the flight of stairs, walked in the pool of water and lit the submerged cauldron at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, a lot of things must have been running in Cathy Freeman’s head.

But one feeling rose above the rest as the Olympic flame that opened the 2000 Olympics slowly rose above the water and into the night sky. “I felt all of Australia was holding me up,” said Freeman. “I felt all of the energy and emotion from all the people in the stadium. It was an amazing moment for me.”

By picking Freeman, a champion of aboriginal rights, Australia made an effort to heal the wounds over the treatment of its nearly four lakh indigenous people.

The aboriginal runner, then the 400m world champion, was the apt choice, for Freeman had celebrated her roots after all her major triumphs, at times against much opposition. She took a victory lap, carrying the aboriginal flag, after her 400m triumph at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada. When officials scolded her for that, she replied by winning the 200m and unfurling the flag again.

Freeman, her country’s lone track and field medal hope at the Sydney Games, made history a few days after becoming the first competing athlete to light the flame, by becoming the first Australian aborigine to win an individual Olympic gold.

Running the 400m in a hooded pale green, yellow and white bodysuit, she broke clear with about 60m to go with her long strides and powered to the finish. With so much to handle, it was a wonder that she didn’t collapse under pressure.

Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman, who took to running on the advice of her stepfather, became a legend that day, the icon of national unity. And the long hard road she had travelled was symbolic of the aboriginal people’s journey from persecuted natives to Australian equals.

And the whole world clapped and cheered when she did the lap of honour with an Australian and an aboriginal flag in her hand.

Stan Rayan