Aboriginal star rises above Aussie history
Cathy freeman already had a 230-foot picture of herself towering over downtown Sydney, courtesy of Nike. But for sheer thrills, exposure, and utter symbolism you can't beat lighting the Olympic cauldron.Skip to next paragraph
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An estimated 3.7 billion people watched the Aboriginal runner jog up the steps to the giant cauldron in a white bodysuit Friday. And with a walk into a pool of water, where she lit a ring of bubbling gas jets, Australia sent a message to more than half the world.
"It is a very major statement that an indigenous Australian can light the flame at the millennium Games," says Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates.
One facet of Australia's Olympian quest to persuade the world it has more to offer than Crocodile Dundee is to show that it has evolved into a vibrant, multiracial society. Arguably, no one is a better ambassador for that message than Ms. Freeman.
She is the fastest woman over 400 meters in the world and a favorite to win gold in Sydney. But she is also Aboriginal - and keenly aware of the political and social controversies over indigenous rights in Australia - which makes Freeman an icon carrying the burden of a national consciousness on her shoulders.
The descendants of a culture thought to date back as much as 60,000 years, Aborigines have been Australia's most mistreated and disadvantaged population, almost from the day the British settled in Sydney in 1788.
Aborigines have a life expectancy of almost 20 years less than the rest of the population. They make up 19 percent of the prison population though they are just 2.1 percent of the population at large. They are more likely to be unemployed and the victims of violence. They are also more likely to commit suicide.
Those statistics have weighed on Australians for a long time. So have a litany of atrocities, including the removal of thousands of indigenous children from their mothers as part of government welfare policies that lasted into the early 1970s.
Hope for reconciliation
But Cathy Freeman's emergence as Australia's best hope for a gold medal on the running track comes at a time when Australians are increasingly seeking to reconcile with the Aborigines. Polls show more than two-thirds of Australians support the idea.
These days the refusal of Prime Minister John Howard to apologize formally to the Aboriginal population is seen by analysts as one of his greatest political liabilities ahead of an anticipated election next year. About 500,000 people have marched across bridges in Australian cities in support of an apology in recent months, and opinion polls show about half the population supports a formal "sorry."
But Freeman - and her public adulation - may be another symbol, too, of how things have changed in the new Australia.
Since the opening ceremony, Freeman has stayed away from the rush to try to find symbolism in the decision to have her light the cauldron. "I have never felt emotion like that before," she said in a statement, in one of her few public comments on the role. "I was just emotionally overwhelmed by the honor of being chosen among all those wonderful Australian athletes."
Some Aboriginal leaders and white Australians friendly to their cause have mounted protests in the lead-up to the Olympics, though their numbers have been limited to the hundreds.
But others say Freeman's appearance - and the inclusion of Aboriginal themes in the opening ceremony - was a bonus, as they try to highlight their cause to a world focused on Australia. "The opportunity that the opening ceremony gave us in terms of exposure was greater than any protest that we would have been able to manage," says Geoff Clark, head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
For the most part, Freeman has stayed out of politics over the past decade as she has risen to the top in the world of athletics.
But in a July interview with a London newspaper, she vented her anger over the Australian government's refusal to acknowledge the existence of a "stolen generation," as those Aboriginal children taken from their mothers as late as the early 1970s by the government are called in Australia. (Not only has Howard's government argued over the numbers of children taken away; it has also put millions of dollars into fighting claims for compensation by those now grown-up children.)
"My grandmother was taken away from her mother because she had fair skin. She didn't know her birthday, so we didn't even know how old she was when she died," Freeman said at the time. "I was so angry."