• Cathy Freeman walks a lap of honour, carrying the Australian and Aboriginal Flags, after winning Gold in the Women's 400 meters Finals. (AAP)
Fifteen years to the day since Cathy Freeman ran into the history books and Australian folklore, we continue to work to ensure this moment was not a high water mark of reconciliation.
By
Karina Marlow

25 Sep 2015 - 1:40 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2015 - 4:55 PM

The crowd had been waiting for this moment for hours. More than 110,000 spectators packed Sydney Olympic Stadium. They were joined by tens of thousands more who lined streets and parks around the country to watch her on giant screens.

Cathy Freeman was the most talked about Australian competitor in the lead up to the Olympics and her two world championships, in 1997 and 1999, cemented her as the firm favourite for the race.

Her iconic silver, yellow and green bodysuit paid testament to her country while her red, yellow and black sprinting shoes honoured her Aboriginal heritage. Just past 8.00pm on Monday 25 September, she took her mark in lane six.

The gun went off. The crowd jumped to their feet and began a deafening roar that continued unabated for the entire 49 seconds that her race lasted.

As they approached the final corner, Cathy was running in third place. Would there be an upset? No. In the last one hundred metres, she powered past her opponents and crossed the finish line in first place, metres ahead of her closest rivals. 

"Relief was an overwhelming emotion, because it was something I’d dreamt of ever since I was 10 years old" 

As she removed her hood, she slowed to a stop and shook her head in disbelief. Finally she sank to her knees overcome. The commentator proudly declared, “This is a famous victory, a magnificent performance – what a legend, what a champion!”

Later, describing that moment in the Sydney Olympics documentary, Cathy Freeman said: "Relief was an overwhelming emotion, because it was something I’d dreamt of ever since I was 10 years old."

The hopes of a whole nation had been pinned on her performance, which was seen by many as a symbol of reconciliation: black and white united in pride and spirit.

25 September 2000 - Australian runner Cathy Freeman gets ready to win gold in the 400 metres at Stadium Australia. (AAP)

But it is the image of a beaming Cathy, running her victory lap barefoot and proudly carrying the Australian and Aboriginal flags that has remained in the collective mindset.

"It was always a dream of mine to not only win an Olympic gold medal but to do the victory lap with both flags," she said in the documentary. "I hold the Aboriginal community in such a high place in my heart so I’m very proud of my Indigenous roots."

Cathy was a symbol of hope for a country that had spent the last decade coming to terms with the legacy of assimilation policies, which were outlined in the Bringing Them Home report. The public was also confronted by the high level of incarceration of Indigenous people, who at the time were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians. Just months prior, 300,000 people had walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to show their support for the growing calls for reconciliation.

But to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, Cathy was something more.

"Whether she liked it or not she was representing the entire Indigenous community"

"Whether she liked it or not she was representing the entire Indigenous community, and the Australian community," Aboriginal rugby union star Mark Ella told ABC’s Sporting Nation documentary. "She was the pin-up girl at the time."

Cathy had been representing Aboriginal people for a decade before she ran that night. At just 16 she ran in the 4x100 metre relay at the Auckland Commonwealth Games, making her the first ever Aboriginal Australian to win a Commonwealth gold.

She backed it up with an outstanding performance, winning both the 200-metre and 400-metre races at the 1994 Games, where she sparked controversy for running her victory lap with both the Aboriginal and the Australian flags.

Cathy had landed in the political spotlight.

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"People choose to symbolise me for all sorts of causes," she explained to the ABC TV’s 7.30.

"I just love running and I love competing and that's really simple. I just go out there with a lot of pride in my heart. I know that I not only represent myself but I represent my people."

Australian Olympic athlete Cathy Freeman ignites the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics (AP)

Cathy’s role at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games brought greater attention to the political issues affecting Aboriginal Australians in both local and international media. 

The decision to have Cathy light the Olympic cauldron was heavily debated by the organising committee. However John Coates, the Australian Olympics Committee president, ruled that "awarding the honour to an Aboriginal athlete would send a wonderful signal to the world," as quoted by Sydney Morning Herald.

When she expressed her disappointment in a British newspaper at John Howard’s refusal to give a formal apology to the Stolen Generations, including her own grandmother, it put increasing pressure on the then prime minister:

"You have to understand that when you have a government that is so insensitive to the issues that are close to people's hearts, that have affected so many lives for the worse, people are going to be really angry and emotional," she told the London Daily Telegraph

After retiring from racing in 2003 there were suggestions that she might enter politics.

"Nothing had stopped the nation in my lifetime like this race" 

Instead, she took time off the field, but remained engaged in public life campaigning for better education outcomes for Indigenous Australians through the Cathy Freeman Foundation that she established in 2007.

Fifteen years since she won that race, Cathy’s victory remains etched in the minds of many Australians.

For some athletes, such as Olympic hurdler and Australian Sally Pearson, Cathy’s legacy is an inspiration that would drive them on to their own sporting achievements.

In a post-race interview, after Ms Pearson claimed gold at the London 2012 Olympics, she was asked how long she had dreamt of this moment.

She replied: "Since I first watched Cathy Freeman at Sydney 2000, I thought well I want to do that too... so twelve years later here I am."

"Since I first watched Cathy Freeman at Sydney 2000, I thought well I want to do that too... so twelve years later here I am"

Today, Cathy remains a symbol of the 2000 Olympics. Veteran sports presenter Bruce McAveney, who commentated the momentous race, spoke of how Cathy captured Australia’s collective imagination.

"Nothing had stopped the nation in my lifetime like this race," he said in the Sydney Olympics documentary. "And I think so many Australians had a personal interest…it was personal, it was us, it was our nation.

“I guess us presenting ourselves to the rest of the world through this one woman.”

For many it seems that night was a picture of Australia as it ought to be: reconciling through the celebration of one person's achievements and talent.

Cathy Freeman (centre) with Adam Goodes (right) (AAP)

But in the years since, we continue to work at ensuring that this moment does not represent the high water mark of the efforts towards reconciliation.

Indigenous sportspeople continue to face racism both on and off the field and the seemingly inevitable backlash that occurs when they stand up for their people.

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While Cathy Freeman’s victory brought two halves of a nation together, the issues that face Indigenous Australia today, both sporting and political, show we must persist.