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This Freedom Fighter Lets Her Feet Do Talking

September 19, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — For a giant, she sure likes to toy with her hair. For a warrior, she sure can giggle.

Four days after standing in front of the world with a torch while the Summer Olympics was draped around her shoulders, Cathy Freeman emerged this afternoon looking no worse for the weight.

The fierce Australian track star spoke with a quiet lilt.

"Really," she said, her hand over her mouth, "I'm such a shy thing."

The proclaimed Aboriginal freedom fighter spoke only of calm.

"What I'm about is, really, is just being free to be who I am in my own country," she said.

This controversial sprinter slowed and stepped carefully, but firmly, through the notion that Australians are increasingly angry that their Olympic symbol is black.

"You can't please everyone, you know?" she said.

She smiled, shrugged, stepped away from the table at the end of a 30-minute news conference that had served as a reminder.

This is sometimes how you change things.

Not with anger, but with intellect.

Not with shouting, but with smiles and shrugs.

This is clearly how Cathy Freeman works.

She is the most celebrated athlete in the most celebrated affair in the history of a country that, until the last 30 years, treated her ethnic race as though it didn't exist.

But she wields that hammer with care.

"This is definitely a big boost to the Aboriginal community, and a tremendous honor for the Aboriginal people" she said without bitterness.

By being chosen to light the Olympic torch last Friday in the opening ceremony instead of several other white Australian former Olympians who have already won gold medals, she became a symbol of the Aboriginal movement.

Yet she won't talk about the specifics of that movement.

"People like to symbolize me," she said. "But I would just like for young Aboriginals to think that they can live in a world of unity of all people and religions."

The pressure now to shine not just in her 400- and 200-meter sprints, but also in every public act during these Game, is as vast and overwhelming as the Outback where many of Australia's indigenous people reside.

She embraces it.

"I don't like to pass comment on Aborig . . . political issues," she said, smiling. "But certainly a lot of people are getting a kick out of it."

She paused.

"From my mother, all the way to the Aboriginal people walking the street."

A smile and a shrug.

"As my emotions get stronger, my pride in who I am gets more obvious," she said. "That's a good thing."

Not everyone agrees.

The letters pages in local newspapers are full of venom from those who thought that giving the final torch to Freeman was like giving the keys of the country to a Martian.

"The overwhelming public favourite to light the cauldron, Dawn Fraser (swimmer), was shafted by the Olympic committee because she is not Aboriginal. This is the single most racist act in our entire history."

So wrote Edward Beresford of St. Ives in a letter to The Daily Telegraph.

"[Officials] must be congratulated for hosing down the threatened Aboriginal rights demonstrations at the Sydney Olympics. As with all kinds of blackmail, there is a price . . . media darling Cathy Freeman was given the cauldron lighting task at the Olympic opening ceremony, ahead of former gold medalists."

So wrote Benjamin Bray of Raymond Terrace in a letter to the same newspaper.

Freeman, who begins her running program later this week, would not directly address those critics.

"I really don't know what goes on most of the time in people when they see me," she said.

Nor will she comment directly on previous statements that the government should formally apologize for a program, discontinued in the 1960s, in which Aboriginal children were stolen from their parents to be raised by whites.

But she would talk about a dinner she had several months ago in Los Angeles.

John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, used the occasion to ask her if she would be the surprise caldron lighter.

"I was shocked and numbed," she said. "My mind went totally blank. It was such an honor. When I learned what it was and what it meant, how could I say no?"

She was asked if the enormous publicity surrounding one of the best-kept secrets in this country's history has been a distraction.

"No, the honor has actually given me incentive to train even harder, if that's possible," she said. "To go for the extra five percent, if that's possible."

She was asked what she felt when she was actually handed the torch for the final run to the watery caldron.

Judging from the letters, many think she felt defiant.

Judging from her giggle, you knew it was something else.

"I got the flame and it was like, I was embarrassed," she said. "I stood there wondering what other people would be thinking, finally knowing that it was me that had it."

And then . . .

"And then I felt nothing but energy and emotion."

And come next week, when she's on the Olympic Stadium track in front of 110,000 speactators, many cheering her, but some clearly hoping she will fail?

"Really, it's like this big jelly thing full of color and noise all around you, but I'm not sure of any of it," she said, smiling. "All I see is the lane ahead of me."

She smiled, and shrugged, and you know she sees much, much more.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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