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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

It's Cathy Freeman's big night, but also one when the sometimes-invisible Aborigines hold center stage in Sydney.

September 26, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — It was 400 meters spanning 10,000 years.

It was a circular sprint whose footprints crossed a continent.

When it was over, when the running had ceased but the thunderous cheering and flashbulb lightning continued, the power of it knocked Australia's strongest athlete to the ground.

This, then, is how Cathy Freeman first celebrated the Olympics' finest moment Monday night.

Sitting on the hard track just beyond the finish line, as alone as her Aboriginal people, being showered with love by the nation that has historically ignored them.

She scanned the crowd, studied the sky, fought back tears, sank into the embrace.

"I was totally overwhelmed," she said. "I could feel the crowd totally around me, over me. Happiness absorbed into every pore of my body. It was beyond words."

In front of a crowd of 112,524 comprising mostly white Australians, her Olympic victory in the 400-meter sprint carried beyond the traditional reach of many things.

It was the first individual gold medal by a member of an indigenous race that has been here for centuries.

It was perhaps a first step toward the serious application of public pressure on a government that refused to apologize for institutionalized stealing of Aboriginal children that didn't stop until the 1960s.

More simply, as Freeman typically noted, it was a chance for a member of a virtually invisible race to stroll comfortably around Olympic Park.

Even if it was for only 49.11 seconds.

"It's really funny because I stand out in a crowd," she said, laughing. "Especially tonight."

With about 50 meters remaining, she left the crowd of runners and sprinted home four-tenths of a second ahead of Jamaica's Lorraine Graham, who didn't seem to mind.

"Tonight was for Cathy Freeman alone," Graham said.

So alone Freeman sat, for several long minutes while the other runners breathlessly staggered from the track.

When she finally rose to her feet, in the first of several symbolic moments, it was without shoes or socks.

Unwittingly representing both her past and future, she walked a victory lap wearing her space-age running suit . . . but barefooted.

"Sport is a great arena for drama, because anything can happen," she said.

She walked to the stands and grabbed a blue, white and red Australian flag . . . tied in a knot with a yellow, black and red Aboriginal flag.

"I'm sure what happened tonight will be a symbol," she said. "I hope it can help change attitudes of people everywhere, of people just walking the streets. I hope I can make a lot of people happy that there are Australians with a lot of different backgrounds."

She danced and waved the flag to the crowd . . . but stopped long enough to jog to the stands and hug her mother.

"My family is very proud of its Aboriginal heritage," she said.

The noise was deafening, maybe the longest standing ovation in sports history, from the moment she stepped out for the race until the moment she disappeared afterward.

But the only words she heard, she said, were her own.

"I was really nervous before the race, but the voice in my head kept telling me, 'Do what I know, do what I know,' " she said.

The mantra has accompanied her for several years, from the unnerving moment she learned the Olympics would be in her country to the startling occasion when she realized she would be lighting the caldron during the opening ceremony.

The mantra has been her only defense against an insistent tug.

Some Aboriginals--they make up 2% of the 19 million population here--wanted Freeman to boycott the Olympics in protest of the government's refusal to apologize for what is called "the stolen generation."

Then there were the white Australians who were angry that she was chosen for the caldron ceremony despite having never won an Olympic gold medal.

She was being criticized on one side for not being political enough, and on the other side for representing political correctness.

Because a victory Monday was expected--top rival Marie-Jose Perec dropped out--a loss would have been devastating.

The pressure has been so great that, at one point this summer, she even fled to Los Angeles.

But ultimately, triumphantly, she did what she does best.

She slipped a Lycra hood down over her earrings, and she ran.

"I decided that I had to stay true to who I am," she said.

She ran in shoes the color of the Aboriginal flag, even though they clashed with the Aussie green of her suit.

She ran from behind, even though she knew the final meters would be the longest of her life.

She finished with such power for someone so small, her competitors simply bowed.

"I was part of a very special race," third-place finisher Katharine Merry of England said. "I was privileged to run with Cathy."

Then, on the medal stand, Freeman sang.

Unlike many athletes here, particularly our free and brave Americans, she knew every word.

"Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free . . ."

It was only a race. That is only a song.

The remote and complex world here will not immediately change.

This morning, after Freeman's triumph, there were still Aboriginal lives being wasted in the nearby crumbling neighborhood to which they are essentially confined. There were still white Australians who will treat the indigenous people like intruders.

It was only a race.

But for a moment, it was a race that made the hopeful words of that anthem ring true.

"I am going to celebrate with my family," Cathy Freeman said before trotting into the fragrant night. "But anybody else who wants to join in, they can join in."

It was a race that, despite a glorious finish, will be best remembered as a start.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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