Cathy Freeman

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If Cathy Freeman competes in the 2004 olympic games in Athens, she will be just a runner; rich, famous and probably much admired, but a runner just the same. But on the evening of Sept. 25, as she crouched in the blocks at Sydney's Olympic stadium for the 400-m final, she was something else. More than merely representing Australia, she had-through forces largely beyond her control-come to embody it.

The biggest year of Freeman's life coincided with a period of unprecedented national introspection. Just after voters rejected a proposal that Australia become a republic came the clamor of theworld en route to Sydney. Australia's excitement was tinged with trepidation. Could the brash city pull off a Games? Freeman felt similar anxiety about a home Olympic final. Like Sydney, she could not afford to fail. Australians not only expected her to win, but wanted her to win more than any other local athlete.

Her Aboriginality imbued her quest with poignancy and significance. On Sunday, May 28, 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the name of reconciliation between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australians, who comprise 2.2% of the country's 19 million people. Never before had mainstream Australia so powerfully expressed its sympathy for Aborigines' plight: their high rates of alcoholism, unemployment, disease and premature death.

As an Aboriginal woman who'd excelled in sport, Freeman had won from mainstream Australia a peculiar affection. The 27-year-old from Mackay, North Queensland is both an ingenue and strangely charismatic. In 1994, when she breached protocol by brandishing the Aboriginal flag on her victory lap at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, Freeman became an overnight celebrity. Though that incident was an overt political statement, she would make few more in the next six years. And it was this reserve, this dignity, that endeared her to Australians. She was unspoiled, irreverent. Minutes after winning a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics, she told a reporter: "I just ran my little black butt off."

Freeman's elevation to the status of national symbol was formalized on the night of Sept. 15, when she lit the Olympic caldron at the opening ceremony. The choice of Freeman reflected the image Australians wanted to show the world: young, beautiful, unpretentious-and on the verge of greatness. Ten nights later she carried the burden of a nation's hopes and insecurities. She trailed Jamaica's Lorraine Graham as they entered the final straight of the 400 m, but pulled away to win gold. Seconds later, she slumped tearily to the track. At no time before the race, she said later, "was I brave enough to consider what life might have been like if I hadn't won."

The tide that carried Freeman to the forefront has subsided; the road to reconciliation looks to be a long one. While Freeman is likely to remain a force in athletics for some time, she has also hinted at an interest in politics. Any public figure would envy the honor she earned in 2000, when a nation held its breath and a free spirit captured everyone's heart.