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Opinion

The night Cathy Freeman won gold

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Roar Guru
10th May, 2020
5

With signs that Australia is beating, or at least containing, coronavirus, Australian sport seems set to resume.

The greater unknown, though, is when crowds will be allowed to attend. We can only guess at this point, but it seems unlikely until later in the year at the very earliest.

For me, being at the event is always better, perhaps less so when your team is getting belted. This enforced break has made me reflect on what my favourite live sporting moment was.

It was really no contest. Cathy Freeman’s win in the 400 metres at the Sydney Olympics.

Here’s my memory of that time 20 years ago. Memories get a bit hazy sometimes, but I still remember everything about the night of September 25, 2000.

But first, a bit of the back story. Cathy Freeman was the hope of the nation a few years out from the Olympics. I remember my family went into the athletics ballot for that night specifically, like so many other people, to try and get a chance to see Cathy run.

She won her first world title in 1997 in Athens before missing most of 1998 with injury. Freeman was then unbeaten in 1999, including another World Championship victory. She went into Sydney as the firm favourite and with that came a mountain of pressure. Lighting the flame to start the Games, while a tremendous honour, only heightened that expectation.

The Australian flag

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Her main rival was Marie-Jose Perec, who had won the last two Olympic finals in the 400 metres but had been hampered by injury leading into Sydney. Cathy was perhaps in the better form but Perec had won seven of the nine races featuring the two.

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It never eventuated. Perec left Sydney the day before the Olympics started, after allegedly being threatened by an unidentified man in her Sydney hotel room. She criticised the Australian media, saying, “I have the impression that everything has been made up in order to destabilise me”.

Hotel official and police found no evidence that the threat ever occurred. The president of the French athletic federation, Philippe Lamblin, went further.

“The whole of France is penalised by this decision,” he said. “She left like a thief. She had the chance to finish in style but instead she’s gone off the rails.”

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In all likelihood, the intense media scrutiny played a part in Perec leaving Australia. But if Perec felt pressured, the expectation on Freeman’s shoulders was simply enormous.

For anyone in Sydney during the Olympics, you’d remember it was a fantastic time. Fears of city gridlock never eventuated and while there were queues to get into venues, the crowd was always good natured.

On the afternoon of the final, my family were like countless thousands of others using the event bus system to get to Sydney Olympic Park. We got there early to soak up the atmosphere but were still on the bus when Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst won gold in the beach volleyball at Bondi. News travelled quickly around the bus as Australia added another gold medal to its tally.

That night was incredible: Michael Johnson in the mens 400-metre final, arguably the best 10,000-metre final in Olympic history, and Tatiana Grigorieva’s silver medal in the women’s pole vault.

But the focus was on Cathy. The roar as she entered the Olympic stadium was incredible. Just before the race, she took a couple of deep breaths and clapped her hands. You couldn’t tell whether it was nerves or excitement. Certainly the crowd was nervous.

Cathy Freeman

(Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The noise from the 110,000 people in the crowd when the race started was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It sounds silly but it was almost like it passed through you and lifted you. And the flash bulbs – countless thousands of flash bulbs. I was way too nervous to be holding a camera.

Freeman started well enough but was not in front. We were standing in the crowd on the bend leading into the home straight. When she went past, she was just behind Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham and Great Britain’s Katharine Merry, but she was lifting.

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From there, my eyes were racing between the live race and the big screen but the noise, if anything, was louder. Freeman hit the front with 60 metres to go and was not going to lose from there. In Bruce McAvaney’s words, “this is a famous victory, a magnificent performance”.

The feeling in the stadium was unbelievable. People were crying and hugging strangers. It was complete elation.

Freeman crossed the line, unzipped her suit, crouched down, shook her head, put her hands on her face and closed her eyes. At the time, Australians saw it as being sheer relief while Freeman remembers it as her being disappointed in her time. Whatever it was, people who saw it will remember it forever.

Cathy Freeman had won gold.