Twenty years after Sydney, Freeman's Olympic legacy endures


Sydney (AFP)

When Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron in Sydney to launch the "best-ever" Olympics 20 years ago Tuesday, then donned a full bodysuit to become the first Aboriginal to win an individual gold medal, she etched her name in sporting folklore.

Her exploits remain the defining moment of a Games which also saw 17-year-old Ian Thorpe burst on the scene, gaining instant stardom with his three golds and two silvers, and the debut of fellow teen swim sensation Michael Phelps.

In a country still struggling to reconcile itself with its indigenous peoples, long-time Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates, now IOC vice-president, recognised Freeman could be a pivotal figure.

"I was the one who asked her to light the cauldron," he told AFP in an interview.

"For me, she was an existing (400m) world champion, she'd had silver in the Atlanta Olympic Games and she was indigenous. And I think that was very important.

"I took Cathy to dinner in Los Angeles and she said to me: 'Why me?' and she named a lot great Australians," he added.

"And I said, 'You're a current world champion, you're Aboriginal and this will play a part in the reconciliation of our country'."

The identity of the cauldron-lighter was shrouded in secrecy until seconds before Freeman emerged from the shadows in a luminescent white costume to carry the Olympic flame on the final part of its journey from Greece to open the Games.

It stands as a defining image to this day and capped an epic opening ceremony that celebrated Australian culture, emphasising its Aboriginal heritage.

Seen as a symbol of unity, Freeman carried the weight of a nation's political and sporting hopes on her shoulders even before people knew she would light the cauldron, with her face plastered on posters everywhere.

While her part in the opening ceremony was an emotional moment, it paled in comparison to delivering on the track in the 400 metres, an event that captured the world's attention.

- People 'became equal' -

The much-hyped race was shrouded in controversy before it even started, with key challenger Marie-Jose Perec dramatically fleeing Australia ahead of their showdown.

France's triple Olympic gold medallist claimed she was threatened and insulted, and that the pressure to beat Freeman was too much to bear.

Despite being written into Olympic history, Freeman rarely talks of that night.

Notoriously private, she declined to speak with AFP, but opened up to the Sydney Daily Telegraph's weekly magazine Stellar in her only print interview ahead of the anniversary.

Freeman, 47, said she could still recall, as if it were yesterday, the noise of the crowd vibrating through her while she warmed up.

"It's like a beast. I'm nervous using that description because I don't want people to feel insulted. But it had a beast-like presence," she said.

"I remember saying to myself, 'Just do what you know.'"

On autopilot, Freeman ran the race of her life, accelerating past Jamaica's Lorraine Graham and Britain's Katharine Merry on the final bend to the thunderous roars of the 112,000-strong Olympic Stadium crowd.

During her victory lap, she draped herself in both the Australian and Aboriginal flags in defiance of Olympic rules, reinforcing the message of reconciliation.

"I only have to cast my mind back to that night where people, for that small moment in time, became equal," she said.

- 'The best Olympic Games' -

"That's so powerful. Everyone is just there celebrating a victory and it's one of the great privileges of my life to witness. Even though I am ordinary, it's an extraordinary story."

Coates remains in touch with Freeman and has convinced her to be on the advisory board for Brisbane's bid to host the 2032 Olympics.

"We will forever hold her in the highest regard," he said.

Sydney won the bid to host the first Games of the new millennium in September 1993, edging Beijing.

It proved to be the last Olympics before the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and, with security not such a pressing priority, there was a party atmosphere in Sydney.

North and South Korea marched as one at the opening ceremony and four East Timorese athletes competed under the Olympic flag as their country awaited independence from Indonesia.

Multiple world records were set with then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch famously calling it "the best Olympic Games ever".

While Freeman was the star, Thorpe was also a major success story, setting the first world record of the Games in winning the 400m freestyle. Sydney also marked the debut of Phelps, then 15, who went on to become the most decorated Olympian in history.

Coates was reluctant to say whether it remained the best Olympics.

"That's for others to judge," he said, but pointed to its legacies, with the stadiums built all still being used, and Australia enjoying a reputation as a destination for major events.

"Then we have all the kids that were inspired by Cathy and Ian Thorpe," he added.