Cathy Freeman’s role in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games embedded her name forever in Olympic history. She lit the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium - after the torch had been handled by six Australian women, who had between them won 15 gold medals - in an Opening Ceremony that celebrated both a century of women’s participation and the heritage of indigenous Australians.
Eleven nights later she fulfilled a mission that had absorbed her life: she won the 400m final, becoming the athlete of the Games. The weight of expectations she carried into that race was enormous. Apart from the hopes of a nation, there was an extra load - 200 years of history.
Fourth out of the blocks, she appeared to catapult herself clear of her rivals in the straight. Later she danced through a victory lap, carrying Australian and Aboriginal flags. Not since 1964, when Betty Cuthbert was successful over the same distance in Tokyo, had an Australian woman won a flat race on the track at the Games.
Freeman grew up in Mackay, Queensland, and was a natural athlete from early childhood. Asked at 14 by a vocational officer what she wanted to do after school days, she said: “I want to win gold medals at the Olympic Games.” And after that? “I don’t care.” At 16 she won the 4 x 100m relay gold at the Auckland Commonwealth Games. At the Atlanta 1996 Games she became the first Aboriginal medallist, by finishing second to Marie-Jose Perec in the 400m. After that she won back-to-back world championships over the distance in 1997 and 1999. By Sydney, at 27, she was stronger, tougher mentally, and ready.
In April 2018, Freeman was awarded an Order of Merit by the Australian Olympic Committee. An Order of Merit is awarded to a person who in the opinion of the Executive has achieved remarkable merit in the sporting world, either through personal achievement or contribution to the development of sport.
Since retiring from elite competition, Freeman has been using her platform to invest in the future of Indigenous children, through her charity Cathy Freeman Foundation (CFF).
Freeman’s vision for CFF, is to see an Australia where Indigenous and non-Indigenous children have equal access to education and the same opportunities for success in life.
Harry Gordon, AOC historian