Cathy's run to freedom

Every sportswriter worth his (or her) wheezing laptop has what we like to call an "I was there" list.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Cathy Freeman lights the Olympic Flame at the start of the 2000 Sydney Games. — Pic. AFP-

Every sportswriter worth his (or her) wheezing laptop has what we like to call an "I was there" list.

In simpler translation: the best sporting moments we have been privileged to attend by virtue of editors with deep hip pockets.

"I was there" is conceited, but it is special; it is different from "I saw it on TV" simply because the sweaty smell of competition, does not transmit through cable.

There is a dry-mouthed taste to sporting combat that no antenna can pick up, the nervous rustle of spectators no microphone can hear, the sheer power of proximity that no zoom lens can beam home. Television is selective, only at the stadium is every sense catered to completely.

All this I know because of the night of September 25, 2000.

For all my fortune of witnessing Tendulkar blitzing the Australians at Sharjah, Leander winning bronze at Atlanta, V. V. S. Laxman walking on water at Eden Gardens, Jimmy Connors coming back from 1-6, 1-6-, 1-4 down at Wimbledon 1987 to overwhelm Mikael Pernfors, that September night has been burnt most sharply in the memory.

In itself this is strange, for it is a memory of a woman who was not a great athlete, who never broke a world record, who was hardly the most elegant of runners, and who won a race where her main rival was missing.

Yet Cathy Astrid Salome Freeman's triumph in the 400 metres at the 2000 Olympics was a rare moment, when beauty, tragedy, character, skill, history, race, society, found themselves in some bizarre mix on an athletics track. It was sport, simple and straightforward, yet it became more than that.

A fortnight ago Freeman retired, and it was almost as if she'd accepted that nothing she ever did would replicate that night. The stars had moved out of alignment forever, her race was done.

Too blithely we say "history was made yesterday when... " as if in the very hitting of a tennis ball or kicking of football something epochal has occurred. But of Cathy's night, this was true.

Freeman, whose name broken up has a noble ring to it (Free-Man), saw herself as the little girl who always wanted to run fast. And she was fast. For almost six years she did not lose a 400m race, barring one occasion when she was flattened by injury.

But for many her story did not lie in speed alone, but colour, the roots of her uniqueness embedded in race, and in country. It was (glib as it might seem) as if in this land struggling to reconcile itself to the persecution of its original inhabitants by white Australians, looking to find a common ground, to find a way forward together, she, this smiling, beguiling Aboriginal, had become a symbol of a new beginning.

There had been Aboriginal athletes before, forgotten cricketers and lesser-known footy players, even the stylish Evonne Goolagong, but Freeman was different. Perhaps by sheer virtue of timing: an Aboriginal athlete, at the Olympics, at home, at a time when Australia had faded as a track and field force, at a time when Australia was questioning its own prejudices towards her people.

Freeman had herself gracefully raised the issue of her own identity. Years earlier, in 1994, at the Commonwealth Games, on winning gold she draped around her shoulders the Australian flag, but also the Aboriginal one. It created a furore.

It was not a symbol of protest, it was not Tommie Smith with his raised fist in a black glove at the 1968 Olympics; it wasn't even Cassius Clay changing his religion, and his name to Muhammad Ali. But it was a statement, it was a message. And it seemed to say: I am proud to be Aboriginal, and Australian.

Perhaps it was the times, but people eventually took to her. It helped that she was charming, and inoffensive, and with a crooked smile that only a bigot would not bend to. It was almost unseemly not to root for her. In a way it was all quite beautiful, for Australia had fallen in love.

But by the time of the Olympics, this was no longer a 400-metre race, not one simple round of the track, it had inflated into something much heftier, as if somehow a national well-being rested on her slim, black shoulders. Freeman was running, and her country was running with her, but the prize was more than gold.

In Australia, there was no escape for Cathy, or from Cathy, her name, her face, her smile was everywhere, from Olympic posters to murals down the side of buildings. When she lit the flame, my cab driver flirted with political incorrectness when he dryly remarked it was inappropriate that a woman who had not won an Olympic gold should be granted that honour.

By September 25, it was evident that this was possibly the most throttling pressure that an athlete has ever carried into a single race, a burden beyond reasonable proportion, an expectation beyond her control.

I wanted her to win, because she was Aboriginal and something good, however small, might come of it; I wanted her to win because the pressure was unfair; and I wanted her to win because losing did not bear thinking about.

The starter's gun accelerated a million hearts, it set off ten thousand camera flashes, it opened a stadium's collective throat. Every eye beamed in on the hooded figure with shaking head, every stranger's hand on her shoulder pushing her further. Prayer met with plea, flags fluttered in the darkness, crossed fingers did not move, and you did not dare exhale as if somehow that might interfere with her karma.

It was a moment that had hurdled mere patriotism, because what was I, Calcutta boy, doing there, yelling, too. It was a minute of mayhem, any longer would have been all too much, and when it was done, and she had crossed first, she had to sit, quickly, for her legs were shaking faster than they had all race. Joy later, now relief. For her, for Australia.

Freeman did something that night very few athletes have done. She moved you, she made it personal, she made you commit emotionally to a woman to whom you had no connection, geographical or otherwise.

"I know I have made a lot of people happy from a lot of different backgrounds, who call Australian home," she said that night. Still, three years later it is hard to judge how far reconciliation has come since that September evening; it is harder to say rigid attitudes have altered irrevocably, that the bigots have been silenced.

Affection lives, but change, that is another matter. She is Aboriginal and accepted, but she, this charmer, was an easy test. True tolerance, true acceptance has some distance to go. That race is not over.