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Free flame

Freeman ignites Games by lighting cauldron

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Latest: Saturday September 16, 2000 12:37 AM

  Cathy Freeman Cathy Freeman is the current world champion in the women's 400 meters. AP

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- In a ceremony that celebrated Australia's proud sporting heritage, as well as a desire for national reconciliation, aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman lighted the Olympic flame Friday to open the Sydney Games.

The flame that had toured Australia for three months was carried through the stadium by a relay of the country's great female Olympians of the past, then handed off to Freeman, one of its great hopes for gold this year in the 400 meters.

The choice of Freeman, a champion of aboriginal rights, also was a symbol of the country's efforts to heal the wounds over the treatment of its 390,000 indigenous people.

The torch's journey through Australia had begun with another Aborigine, hockey gold medalist Nova Peris-Kneebone.

When Freeman won the 400 meters at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, she took a victory lap carrying the aboriginal flag. When officials rebuked her for that, she won the 200 meters -- and again unfurled it.

Freeman has not lost at 400 meters in three years and is the two-time defending world champion. She also may run at 200 meters and is expected to anchor Australia's 1,600-meter relay team.

 
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The closing of Friday's emotional Ceremony focused on Australia's great Olympians -- some of the greatest from any nation.

Three-time silver medalist Raelene Boyle entered the stadium pushing the wheelchair of Betty Cuthbert, a multiple-sclerosis sufferer who won three gold medals as a sprinter at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and added a fourth at Tokyo in 1964.

The flame was passed from Cuthbert to swimmer Dawn Fraser, a triple-gold medalist, and then to track star Shirley Strickland-de La Hunty, who won seven medals, three of them gold.

It then went to Shane Gould, winner of three golds in 1972, and to Debbie Flintoff-King, a gold medal hurdler at the Los Angeles games of 1984.

Then Freeman, barely suppressing tears of emotion, jogged up a flight of stairs in a runner's bodysuit, stepped into a pool and touched the torch to the water, creating a circle of flame. As the ring of fire encircled her, a cauldron resembling a spaceship rose from the water, ascending a waterfall to top of the stadium.

Freeman has made news almost as often off the track as on.

In July, she accused Australian leaders of insensitivity for refusing to apologize for government policies that forced the removal of about 100,000 aboriginal children from their homes from 1910 until the 1970s.

"I was so angry because they were denying they had done anything wrong, denying that a whole generation was stolen," Freeman said.

"I'll never know who my grandfather was, I didn't know who my great-grandmother was, and that can never be replaced."

She is married to a U.S. citizen, Nike executive Sandy Bodecker.

If Freeman decides to repeat her victory lap with the aboriginal flag, she'll have the official blessing of the Australian Olympic Committee. It said it will not punish athletes who celebrate with that flag.


 
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