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For the people

Australian Freeman wins 400 meters

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Latest: Monday September 25, 2000 08:27 PM

  Cathy Freeman Cathy Freeman of Australia breathes deeply after winning gold in the Olympic 400-meter final. Jeff Haynes/AFP

SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- Australia's Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal athlete who lit the cauldron to open the Sydney Olympics, achieved an even greater honor on Monday when she won gold in the women's 400 meters.

The 27-year-old sprinted clear of Jamaica's Lorraine Graham in the home straight to win in a time of 49.11 seconds. Graham held on for second in 49.58 with Britain's Katharine Merry third in 49.72.

Freeman went into the race as a red-hot favorite after winning the last two world championships following her second place finish to Marie-Jose Perec of France at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She did not disappoint.

Unbeaten all season, her chances of winning were given a late boost when Perec suddenly pulled out of the Games three days before the start of the track and field program, leaving Freeman as the woman to beat.

She qualified fastest for the final. The only real fear was how she would cope with the enormous pressures and the expectation of the Australian public and media willing her to win.
from the Olympics
All eyes in Olympic Stadium followed Cathy Freeman from starting blocks to finish line and then back around the track in a victory lap. The newly crowned 400-meter champion sat on the ground and took it all in.  

Australia had not won an Olympic gold medal in athletics since Debbie Flintoff-King won the 400 hurdles at Seoul in 1988 but everyone expected Freeman to break that drought here.

As Australia's most prominent Aboriginal sports star, Freeman has been one of the most scrutinized competitors of the Games, not only because of her achievements on the track but also because of her role in the movement for reconciliation between black and white Australians.

A naturally shy woman, Freeman has never hesitated to speak out against perceived injustices. Recently she took the Australian government to task for their refusal to apologize for the "stolen generation," Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families.

Her openness has won her many admirers but she has paid a high price, her once simple life turned into a soap opera. Now, almost everything she says or does ends in a public brawl.

Freeman first put her foot into controversy when she won gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada and carried the Aboriginal flag on her shoulders on a lap of honor.

Women's 400 Meter Medals
Finish  Country  Athlete 

  Cathy Freeman 

  Lorraine Graham 

  Katharine Merry 
World Record:
Marita Koch (GDR), 47.60 - 10/6/85
Olympic Record:
Marie-Jose Perec (FRA), 48.25 - 7/26/96
Venue: Olympic Stadium

A major race row erupted. She incurred the wrath of Australia's Commonwealth Games chief Arthur Tunstall who was incensed she did not wrap herself in the national flag.

Lighting the flame at the Sydney's opening festivities, while hugely symbolic, only added to the pressure on Freeman to win and win easily.

Monday's Australian newspapers carried front-page pictures of her with brash headlines such as "Date with Destiny."

Somehow Freeman managed to block out the distractions and put her best foot forward in Monday's final.

Wearing a body suit that covered her from head to toe, the Australian began strongly from lane six. Graham led early but Freeman rounded her up to draw level as they entered the final straight then drew away to win by three meters.

Elated and exhausted, she fell to her knees and sat silently for a minute to catch her breath then set off on a lap of honor carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags to a standing ovation from the 110,000 crowd.

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"I'm very relieved it's over," Freeman told Australian television. "It made a lot of people happy, especially my family...I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight."

And she mused: "Something like this happening to a little girl like me... I have to grow up sometime I suppose."

Just like the annual Melbourne Cup horse race does, "Cathy's Race" brought together Australians at home and abroad.

In London's financial district, where many Australians work, dozens took a mid-morning break to watch television.

"There were about 30 of us outside an electronics store watching -- all Aussies -- and it was pretty cool," said Scott Bagby, 27, from Sydney.

It was a similar story in Australian government missions across Europe.

"Everyone took a little break and went downstairs and watched it," said a staff member at Australia's Brussels embassy. "I"d say it was the same in Aussie offices everywhere."

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