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.
Harry Gordon, AOC historian