Before the race she looked anxious, running her tongue over dry lips; after it she slumped exhausted onto the track. In the 49.11 sec. between, Cathy Freeman showed that she is the world's swiftest and most psychologically resilient female 400-m runner. But in the bookend moments of that achievement, Australians caught a glimpse of what she endured to give the nation its first Olympic gold medal in running for 12 years.
To prevail over the best of her peers-three of whom set personal-best times, another a national record-Freeman had to shield herself from the burden of her country's longing. To do this, she used means physical, psychological and symbolic.
She spent much of 2000 not in her home base of Melbourne but in the U.S. and Europe-training and competing, certainly, but also avoiding the Australian media, which her former minder, Nick Bideau, regarded as insatiable. In the 10 days between her lighting of the cauldron at the Games' opening ceremony and the 400-m final, she was constantly activating what her biographer, Adrian McGregor, has called her "mental delete button, which blocks any input which might disturb her internal attention to the singular sensation of running." For the final, she encased herself, head to toe, in a bodysuit. On the blocks, she repeatedly gave herself one instruction: "Do what I know."
She trusted, also, in her athleticism, which is superb, though not phenomenal like Michael Johnson's. The American world-record holder ran his 400-m final only 15 min. after Freeman's, and might as well have been the only man on the track. So great was Johnson's physical superiority that it rendered other factors-the tactics and determination of his rivals, the pressure on him-irrelevant. Freeman didn't have that luxury. She needed to be composed, no simple matter considering who, and especially what, was lined up against her.
Warming up in lane 6, Freeman might just as well have heard this: Introducing, in lane 1, Australia's dismal record on the track -only six Olympic gold medalists since 1960, the last one Debbie Flintoff-King in 1988. In lane 2, the Australian public's disposition to be satisfied with nothing less than a gold-medal performance by Freeman. In lane 3, Athletics Australia's stake-in terms of future government grants-in a Freeman victory. In lane 4, the view of many in Australian athletics that Freeman is a sacred cow. In lane 5, the trail of estrangements in Freeman's past, including the acrimonious split with her manager, tactician and former boyfriend Bideau, only a few months before the Games. In lane 7, the unsettling behavior-before and during the Games-of Freeman's nemesis, Marie-Jose Perec, who fled Sydney just days before the 400-m heats, alleging media harassment. And in lane 8, the color issue-the pressure on Freeman that comes from being pulled in opposite directions by, on one side, the more militant members of her Aboriginal race, and on the other by mainstream Australian society.
Few, if any, of the 112,524 spectators at the Olympic Stadium on Sept. 25 heard the announcement of Freeman's name-their anticipatory roar drowned it out. But as the runners waited for the gun, the mood of the crowd changed, from excited to tense. At this moment, it seemed, many realized how much they wanted Freeman to win. Her quest for gold, which hitherto had been a mere conversation topic, had suddenly put a knot in the nation's stomach.
As the lead runners entered the final straight, Freeman was trailing Jamaican Lorraine Graham. Alone on a TV screen, with her muscular thighs and stomach, Freeman looks imposing. In the flesh, however, she's tiny-just 1.65 m and 53 kg. And as she chased the taller, bulkier Graham, the thought occurred that she could not possibly catch her, for this was a girl against a woman (just as it had seemed in Atlanta, where Freeman couldn't pass the Amazonian Perec).
Afterward, with a silver medal hanging from her neck, Graham sounded proud of her race plan, which was to go out fast-at nearly top speed for 250 m-then use what energy she had left in the straight. As it turned out, she did not have enough to withstand the fast-finishing Freeman, whose victory was greeted with nationwide jubilation. Many spectators shed tears, and one well-dressed man-in his 40s and there with a friend-was overheard declaring the night the greatest of his life.
The world got a sense of Freeman's ordeal as she sat on the track, too bewildered even to acknowledge the congratulations of her fellow runners. Slowly, however, she returned from wherever she had been: the suit was unzipped, her spikes removed, and as her face moved from impassivity through tears to a grin, she sat for a time, she said later, just "to absorb the joy of the crowd into every pore of my body."
During her press conference, she spoke compassionately about Perec and broad-mindedly on the place of athletics in her life and in the scheme of things. At 27, happily married and free of a management style that smothered her, Freeman is blossoming.
Perec might not have deserved Freeman's kindness; she later claimed that she'd have won in Sydney if she'd competed, and said of Australia, "The only thing I am 100% sure of is that I will never again set foot over there." Although Freeman's winning time was nearly 0.5 sec. slower than the time she posted in Atlanta, there are two points to remember: Freeman's competitive history is that she runs only as fast as she needs to; Perec's is that she races only when she's convinced she's going to win.
Within two days of her win, Freeman was back on the track for the 200-m heats. The grim expression she'd worn before her 400-m races was gone, replaced by smiles. She was an Olympic champion, unwinding in an event no one expected her to win. It wasn't nearly as captivating as the scenes of Monday night, but that was fine. Freeman had been through, and achieved, enough.