Aboriginal star rises above Aussie history

Olympics 2000

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.

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."

Colin Tatz, author of "Black Gold: The Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame," says Freeman is a powerful symbol for Aborigines because of her own life story. "Cathy is our answer to Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali." Like those athletes, she has become a symbol for much more than athletic achievement, he says. "This girl trails a history behind her that is the quintessence of the mistreatment of Aboriginals," says Tatz.

Freeman was born into a poor family in the tropical state of Queensland. Her father left the family when she was young, and in an autobiography published in 1998, she revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child. But she was born with fleet feet and made an early impact as a runner: At age 11, her stepfather predicted she would be an Olympian one day.

Freeman made her debut on the international stage at the age of 17 as part of a gold-winning Australian relay team at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and was named Young Australian of the Year that same year.

She took part in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But her real emergence as a top-level athlete came at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada when she won two golds and a silver, making her the most decorated Aborigine ever to have taken part in the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games.

Her victories in 1994 also landed her on the political stage for the first time, when she chose to do a victory lap with the red, yellow, and black Aboriginal flag.

That incident - for which she was at first reprimanded by Australia's team leader, Arthur Tunstall - marked a major turning point in the public perception of Aboriginal athletes, Tatz and others say.

Though it came 26 years later, Freeman's move had the same poignancy, Tatz argues, as the black-power salute African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered during the Mexico City Olympic medal ceremony in 1968. And while she was reprimanded by Tunstall, polls taken at the time showed that some 70 percent of Australians supported her actions, making it one of the first instances of widespread public support for an Aboriginal athlete.

Her status as Australia's favorite runner only became more entrenched when in 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, Freeman won a silver medal in the 400 meters.

She was edged out by France's Marie-Jose Perec, who in Sydney is trying to win her third consecutive gold in the 400 meters and is considered Freeman's main rival when she starts competing in the preliminaries Friday.

But this year she has been the undisputed queen of the track over the distance. If Freeman won this event (she will also compete in the 200 meters and the 4x400 relay), she would become the first Australian Aborigine to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field (field hockey player Nova Perris Kneebone, who is competing as a runner in Sydney, became the first Aborigine to win Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996).

Will she or won't she

Much of the recent speculation in Australia has been not over whether she will win gold but whether, if she wins, Freeman will again choose to shroud herself in the Aboriginal flag. Some see that as a potential barrier to her achieving her lifelong dream of winning Olympic gold.

But Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, the two-time Wimbledon champion who before Freeman's emergence qualified as Australia's highest profile Aboriginal sportswoman, believes Freeman will thrive in the pressure. "Cathy's a pretty tough gal," Ms. Goolagong-Cawley says.

Freeman, who has spent the last few weeks avoiding the media spotlight in Australia, has herself bemoaned her celebrity status at home, where she is daily fodder for the newspapers. To escape the attention she has spent most of the last year training in Britain and the United States - "I love the fact I'm not well-known here," Freeman told a news conference in London last month.

There is speculation she may move into politics in Australia. "Maybe one day when I can channel all my energies into changing the state of politics back home, I'll do it," she told an interviewer in July. "I'd definitely take on that role of taking a stand on issues."

But ready as it is to have an Aborigine as a sports hero here, Australia may not be ready for Cathy the Politician.

According to Tatz, a retired political science professor at Sydney's Macquarie University, entering politics could change Freeman's standing with Australians. Her comments on the "Stolen Generation" were OK, Tatz says, because so many white Australians agreed with her. But if she spoke out about other, more controversial, Aboriginal causes, then the reaction could be very different.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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