Give yourself 60 seconds. Go to Youtube. Put your headphones on. Watch the women’s 400m final at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 here, on maximum volume. Listen to the crowd roar from the start to finish as the woman in a green and silver bodysuit pulls away at the final stretch and finishes the comfortable winner, then going down on her knees overwhelmed by the emotion. All the while, the crowd noise builds up to a crescendo. Even if you had no idea about who or what you were watching, one would bet that by the end of the video you would have goosebumps.
Or, even better, take 80 seconds and watch this video of the same race that has commentary by Australian broadcaster Bruce McAvaeny, known as Mr. Olympics. Follow the scattered claps from the crowd and the silence for just a few seconds before the race begins. The camera focusses on the same woman in the green and silver bodysuit. Take in the concentration in her eyes. Settle down as you wait for the signal for the race to begin, and an “almighty roar” goes up in the arena.
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Then take in the breathless commentary of McAvaney. As the noise once again builds up to a crescendo in the final stretch, McAvaney says, “Cathy lifting. Takes the lead. Looks a winner. Draws away from Merry and Graham. This a famous victory. A magnificent performance. What a legend. What a champion.”
And then, as the best broadcasters do, he goes silent as the legend that is Cathy Freeman starts realising the enormity of her achievement. In front of a roaring Australian crowd, one of the country’s greatest athletes has fulfilled her dream of winning an Olympics gold medal but more than joy, it is relief you see on her face. Tears start forming in her eyes, about the same time perhaps you shed a tear too. If you have any affinity for sports, it is an inescapable feeling. You can help but be moved.
Freeman’s historic win
A young Cathy Freeman told 60 Minutes Australia years before Sydney 2000 that her ultimate aim was to win an Olympic gold medal for Australia (interview at the end of the article). And, after a silver at 1996 Atlanta, that is exactly what the torchbearer for Australian athletics at their home Summer Games achieved, in front of 110,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium in 2000.
Freeman was the favourite to win but, if anything, that only added to the enormous pressure of the occasion. As the reigning double world champion, she was carrying the weight of the nation on her shoulders. Once the race began, it seemed like a tight affair. She was just behind Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham and Great Britain’s Katharine Merry on the final bend, but Freeman accelerated like she was meant to win that night, to cross the finish line in 49.11 seconds, ahead of Graham (49.58) and Merry (49.72).
The superstar Australian athlete, of Aboriginal descent, was the face of the Games in Australia. She was seen as a symbol of national unity. She had been chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, the culminating moment of the Opening Ceremony, on 15 September. Freeman, some can remember, was also left hanging at the Sydney opening ceremony when a platform supposed to rise after the lighting of the flame got stuck for around three minutes. But, in her white bodysuit on that day, she was grace personified.
And on September 25, 2000 she added ferocity to that natural grace of hers as he stormed past the finish line. So consumed by the moment she was that she seemed almost unhappy in the celebratory moments, revealing later, “Some of my brain is very business-like. At the time, as soon as I crossed the line, I was very matter-of-fact about it. I was a bit disappointed about the time.”
But history had been created.
In an article in the Guardian, Australian author Anita Heiss recounted the moment of Freeman’s Olympic gold and what it meant to her, personally, and to the country’s sporting history:
When Freeman charged home to win gold in 49.11 seconds, people watching the world over, from my family in Canberra, to Sydney and beyond, were on their feet, basking in the victory of the young Murri woman from Mackay. Her lap of honour was like a dance, as she carried both the Aboriginal and Australian flags. With those joyful steps she lodged herself in our hearts forever.
On screen we saw a sea of Aboriginal flags, Australian flags, green and gold streamers and people clapping their hands. It’s hard not to imagine that, at that minute, every Australian was proud of Freeman – and what she represented to us all. Strength, commitment, focus and belief in self. Her ability to showcase those qualities to all are part of her legacy.
Freeman tried to sum it up this way: “When those moments occur, it’s like almost watching a magic show. I have tried really hard each day, each year I get older to really respect the way that people relate to that one race in September in 2000. It is so intense and it is so honest,”
Cathy Freeman had not just made the Aboriginal community proud, she made Australia rejoice in great achievement. She stopped an entire nation and made them fall in love with her that night.
You can watch the Sydney 2000 gold medal race in 400m here on the Olympic channel:
You can watch the interview of a young Cathy Freeman talking about her journey:
You can watch a 2014 interview with Cathy Freeman about her iconic achievement here: