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A Crash of Symbols

Freeman's running united Australians, but those hoping she would speak out against injustice have been disappointed

June 29, 2003|Gerard Wright | Special to the Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — Fairy tales don't come any better than this. Close to 110,000 people inside Sydney's Stadium Australia roared their delight and acclaim as the lithe figure in the green-and-white skin suit surged to the front in the final of the women's 400-meter run.

Fifty meters from the line, Cathy Freeman knew she had the race won. All pretensions of style were dropped and she flailed her way to the finish. She opened her ears and heard that roar. "I felt like my bones were vibrating," she recalled.

Ten days earlier, she'd lighted the Olympic flame to signal the start of the 2000 Olympic Games, a moment rife with symbolism and theatrics: the dark, unmistakable face; the body encased in a silver wrap, borne slowly aloft by hydraulics and imagination; the flame, defying water and flaring triumphantly. The torch, on its arrival in the Olympic stadium, passing through the hands of women old and young -- Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Shane Gould; Olympic gold medalists all -- before settling in Freeman's right hand.

This image, that Australia's women are its heroes, and appropriately celebrated, was one of two elaborate hoaxes pulled off by the organizers of the 2000 Olympics. The other, it can be argued, was Freeman herself, the focal point of a country that supposedly had made its peace with its original inhabitants, and was now prepared to cede this historic moment to them.

Cathy Freeman was riding history's wave. In May 2000, about 250,000 people had marched across one of Australia's most notable landmarks, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, demanding reconciliation with, and formal apologies to, the aboriginal population of Australia -- the 97% extending a hand to the 3%.

Implicit in this gathering was regret for the wrongs of the past:

* The belief in and practice of eugenics, the scientific study of racial improvement, under which mixed-blood babies and children were taken away from their -- invariably -- aboriginal mothers, to be raised white and proper, as happened to Freeman's maternal grandmother, Alice Sibley.

* The establishment and maintenance of the missions, the ghettos of outback Australia, where the likes of Frankie Fisher, Freeman's paternal grandfather, were kept by order of a Queensland government minister in the 1930s, even though he had an offer of a professional rugby league contract in England.

The operative word was "sorry." Australia wanted its federal government and, specifically, its prime minister, John Howard, to use this word, in speech and writing. The prime minister, advised of the potentially litigious consequences, kept silent.

In the absence of a formal statement of what Australia now stood for, a symbol would do. Who better than the woman whose grandmother was one of "the stolen generation," whose grandfather had been denied the very outlet of sporting self-expression that had made Cathy Freeman so famous and beloved?

*

She was talked out, or so she thought. Cathy Freeman introduced herself, tall and relaxed, long arms restless through the sleeves of a powder blue T-shirt. She sat at a conference table in a vacant corner office, high above the baking streets of Melbourne's downtown. A charm bracelet on her wrist clanked against the table.

On Feb. 22, six days after her 30th birthday, Freeman announced that she and her husband of 3 1/2 years, Alexander Bodecker, a Nike marketing executive 20 years her senior, had separated and that she would be seeking a divorce.

This interview took place four weeks earlier. Freeman did not wear a wedding ring, but spoke candidly of her husband's battle with cancer, and their relationship.

Since then, Freeman has continued to struggle with form and motivation. At her latest start, the Prefontaine meet in Eugene, Ore., on May 24, she finished a distant fifth to Ana Guevara of Mexico in the 400. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Freeman had had a heated confrontation with her husband, who now lives in Portland, just before the race.

Now based in London, Freeman is still training but is said by her representatives to be contemplating her future.

She was in the middle of a reluctant return from a sabbatical when Bodecker was diagnosed with cancer of the throat in April 2002.

"Because of what I've been through, as an athlete and as an adult, I have this extra confidence in my ability to handle my own emotions and fears," Freeman said. "But with Alexander's health, that was fear like ... I can remember driving along, and I'd be overwhelmed with this gripping terror. I'd experienced death with my sister [Anne-Marie, of complications of cerebral palsy] and father [Norman, who died at 53, when Freeman was 19], and it was like I was revisiting that place again."

Like any successful athlete, Freeman had strode through life, dismissing the doubts and apprehension that are part of most people's reality. In 2002, her vocabulary was adjusted.

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