The spring evenings in September 2000 were still fresh and cool, at least for the track and field athletes with their sensitive muscles who were then out and about in the southern hemisphere. After dark, the temperatures on Australia’s east coast fell well below 20 degrees, which is also why the local sprinter Cathy Freeman slipped into a full-body suit, green-silvery, with a hood. Only the fingers stuck out, and of course the face. The face of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
This Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the women’s 400 meter final, to which Cathy Freeman competed. “If she wins this race,” her former manager and partner Nick Bideau had predicted, “we’ll be talking about it in Australia in twenty years. Maybe forever.” Anyone who was in the stadium when Cathy Freeman won this race will remember it until the end of their days. In less than a minute a pressure that had built up over the years was released. Since Sydney won the Summer Games, in 1993, and since Cathy Freeman appeared on the international stage, a year later.
The woman from the small town of Mackay in the state of Queensland had steadily stoked the hopes of her compatriots, as Olympic runner-up in Atlanta in 1996, as world champion in Athens in 1997 and Seville in 1999. That would have been enough to make her country’s great, if not the greatest, hope for gold in the home games from Sydney to go. But then expectations at the opening ceremony were raised even further.
Because the International Olympic Committee had dedicated the 2000 Summer Games to women who were allowed to take part for the first time 100 years earlier, the organizers had sent five former Olympic champions from Australia to the last round of the stadium as torchbearers: the athletes Shirley Strickland, Betty Cuthbert and Debbie Flintoff-King, in between the swimmers Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould. At the end of this relay race, to the astonishment of everyone in the arena and in front of the TV screens, Cathy Freeman emerged from the darkness of the night to receive the flame and light the Olympic flame. Everyone understood the message: Now it was their turn to continue the series of Olympic victories.
1992: M.-J. Perec (France) Sec. 48.83
1996: M.-J. Perec (France) 48.25
2000: C. Freeman (Australien) 49,11
2004: T. Williams-Darling (Bahamas) 49,41
2008: C. Ohuruogu (Great Britain) 49.62
2012: S. Richards-Ross (USA) 49,55
2016: S. Miller (Bahamas) 49,44
Cathy Freeman should bring her country gold, at least, rather more. “Our Cathy not only carries the sporting hopes of the nation,” the newspaper recalled Sydney Morning Herald the 19 million Australians on the day of the final, “but also a political mission.” A heavy burden for a woman who is only 1.65 meters tall and descended from the Aborigines, the Aborigines who have been disenfranchised and oppressed for centuries. Freeman has always looked after her roots. When she won her first title at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, she took two flags to the lap of honor – the Australian and the Aboriginal. It consists of three colors: red for the earth, yellow for the sun, and black for people. That caused trouble at first, but before Sydney Freeman was considered an integrating figure, a symbol of a multicultural country. “She runs for a reconciled Australia,” said the Sydney Morning Herald.
First of all, of course, she had run away from the hype that was brewing in her home country: she was preparing for the Games in the USA and Great Britain. During the Olympic days, the hustle and bustle of the women’s 400-meter run increased so absurdly in Australia that her supposedly greatest rival, the French Marie-José Perec, gave up in exasperation: the 1996 Olympic champion fled Australia before the preliminary run, because she couldn’t stand the question after the duel any longer.
Cathy Freeman withstood the pressure. And because the atmosphere in the fully occupied stadium was already deafeningly loud in the run-up to and in between and then also in the semifinals and got louder every day, the full-body suit that she put on for the final was probably also a protection from the outside world. The then 27-year-old reported before the finale that one of her strengths was being able to hide everything during the race and concentrate on the essentials: “On the track in front of me, on the commands of the starter. Everything else somehow blurs, as it would be jelly. “
When the starter finally shot the eight finalists into the race, lightning and thunder pelted down from the stands. The lights of innumerable cameras twinkled like stars in the firmament and illuminated the way; the cheering of 112,000 spectators grew like a wave on which the runners surfed apparently weightlessly around the track. And when Cathy Freeman turned third onto the home straight, the noise swelled up to an infernal tsunami, which carried her to the finish line first. In shoes sewn together in three colors: red, yellow, black.
It took a while for the jelly to disappear from Cathy Freeman’s eyes, for Cathy Freeman’s eyes to wake up from her trance and come to again. She peeled off the hood, not only was that a relief. She had accomplished her mission, she had won a gold medal, Australia’s 100th gold medal in Olympic history. Your face, the face of those 2000 Games, it smiled. Even years later, Cathy Freeman felt cold when she thinks of that cool spring evening in September: “Even today I feel as if I could feel the energy of this moment.”