Olympic legends: Cathy Freeman – Born to Run

Australia's Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal who was 400m world champion and silver medallist at Atlanta 1996, dressed in a luminescent white bodysuit, lit the Games flame at the Sydney 2000.

Cathy Freeman became her country’s second athlete to win the 400m gold, which, incidentally, also turned out to be Australia’s all-time 100th gold at the Olympic Games.   -  Getty Images

As she entered the Olympic stadium midway through the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000, dressed in a luminescent white bodysuit to transfer the Games flame to the imposing cauldron at the far end, the message that went out was loud and clear. Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal, being given such a pride of place in Australia’s biggest sporting moment in the new millennium was one that sought absolute reconciliation. It also helped that Freeman was then world champion in the 400m and a silver medallist from Atlanta 1996.

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Yet, the opening act was to be only a sideshow in the end, as days later Cathy was again in focus and held the role of the central character of the plot as she became her country’s second athlete to win the 400m gold, which, incidentally, also turned out to be Australia’s all-time 100th gold at the Games. Yep, the boisterous and the crazy sports home fans could not have asked for more. In exactly 49.11s, a new chapter was scripted into the history of Australian sport and Cathy had the undivided attention of the entire country.

Born in 1973, Cathy had an early initiation into the sport at the insistence of her stepfather and is credited as having recorded her first win as an eight-year-old. In the competitive arena, she was more of a 100m runner at the junior level. The transition to the one-lap race occurred only after Freeman turned senior. Herein, she made steady progress and was selected to represent her country at Barcelona 1992.

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Only 19 years old then, Freeman failed to make an impression, but her farsightedness was noticeable when she scribbled “48.60, Atlanta” on the back of an airsickness bag on the return flight home. Four years later, she did just that, clocking 48.63s as she took silver behind Frenchwoman Marie-Jose Perec after being engaged in a neck-to-neck battle until the very last. Over the next four years, she was ranked No. 1 almost consistently before Sydney beckoned for her finest hour.

On her victory lap, Freeman carried both the Australian flag and the Aboriginal national pendent, which strictly was against Olympic rules. But even the often-stern International Olympic Committee seemed pleased to look the other way, in quiet admiration of the valiant effort of this young Australian.

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