Cathy Freeman, symbol of Australian reconciliation in Sydney 2000

Cathy Freeman symbol of Australian reconciliation in Sydney 2000

Expected among the favorites, Cathy Freeman was, in reality, much more than that during the 2000 Olympic Games. At home, the Aboriginal athlete achieved posterity when she lit the Olympic cauldron in Sydney, becoming an icon of unity between the communities of his country.

5 mins

Some images are not forgotten. And some memories never fade. What happened on September 15, 2000 at the Sydney Olympic Stadium is unforgettable. “ A magical moment “, remembers Cathy Freeman, the most scrutinized woman in the world that day, during the opening ceremony of the 27th edition of the Olympic Games modern. “ I understood all this staging, this intensity around the opening of the Olympic Games and how much it meant for Sydney, the Australian people and undoubtedly all of Oceania. “, confided the heroine to The Team.

An Aboriginal’s dream

For these first Olympic Games in Oceania since the 1956 edition in Melbourne, the expectation is immense around Catherine “Cathy” Astrid Salome Freeman. Double world champion in the 400 meters in 1997 in Athens and in 1999 in Seville, the sprinter is chasing Olympic consecration. In 1996, at the Atlanta Games, she had set the best time of her career, but still lost to the Frenchwoman Marie-José Pérec, imperial in her quest for a second consecutive gold medal on the lap.

But in 2000, Pérec was in full doubt, while Freeman, 27, was in good shape, confident and supported by all of Australia. “ I absolutely wanted to be an Olympic champion. In my mind, Sydney, it was the right time. Nothing could stop me, it was an opportunity that I had to seize. For seventeen years I carried this dream within me ”, she indicated at RFI in 2013.

The dream of glory under the Olympic rings is not the only fuel for the world champion. In fact, Cathy Freeman is much more than just an athlete in Australia. Coming from a family aboriginal, granddaughter of a victim of the “stolen generation” (Aboriginal children kidnapped to be educated in religious missions), she represents a part of national history. A tragic story, with the oppression and massacres perpetrated by settlers from Europe against the Aborigines from the 18th century. The athlete then represents much more than a chance of a medal at home; she is a symbol of unity in Australia. And this aura will be increased tenfold with the important role that will be entrusted to him at the opening of the Games.

Pérec disappears, Freeman in gold

As usual, the identity of the final person in the Olympic torch relay, the one responsible for lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony, remained secret until the end. But in March 2000, Cathy Freeman was approached by the Australian Olympic Committee for this very important moment, four years later. Mohamed Ali lighting the cauldron for the Atlanta Olympics, despite the effects of Parkinson’s disease which was eating away at him.

It was a huge honor. I really didn’t think about it. I had returned. I thought I was going crazy with this at one point. I hesitated, I told myself that other Australian champions probably deserved it more than me. […] But I finally trusted John Coates [vice-président du CIO australien, NDLR] », explained the elected official to The Team. In the greatest secrecy, she will practice for this highly symbolic moment.

On September 15, 2000, in front of 110,000 spectators and a few billion humans in front of their televisions, Cathy Freeman appeared to recover the Olympic torch from her compatriot Debbie Flintoff-King. Dressed in a white and sky jumpsuit, the Aboriginal athlete, the ultimate torchbearer, climbs the steps, walks onto a body of water and lights the cauldron. “ All of Australia was looking at me “, she remembers. She, the symbol of a country that wants to make peace with its painful past.

Unity and hope in person

Ten days after the opening ceremony, Cathy Freeman faces her destiny. The 400 meter heats were a formality for her. In addition, his rival, Marie-José Pérec, left Australia before entering the running. The Frenchwoman, who denounced threats against her and popular pressure from a nation which only has eyes for its champion, leaves the field open to the Australian. In the final, Cathy Freeman, dressed in a new green suit rarely seen on the slopes, drops off her competitors in the home stretch and finally goes to win Olympic gold, in a crazy atmosphere.

The emotions are not over yet. Exceptionally, the IOC agreed to deviate from its rules and authorized Cathy Freeman to perform a lap of honor with two flags tied around her neck: that of Australia and that of the Aboriginal community. Six years earlier, at the Commonwealth Games, this gesture had shocked. This time he is acclaimed. The Olympic champion then carries, on her shoulders, a homeland which is being reconciled. “ Some people think there is no hope, but there are plenty of possibilities for everyone in this country “, she then proclaims.

HAS The TeamCathy Freeman will say again with emotion: “ Above all, I wanted to show what people I represented here and how proud I was of who I was. I wanted to proclaim how exceptional we too could be, that we too could realize our potential and accomplish great things. We survived, we are still alive and we should be proud of who we are. Giving this answer on the track, giving yourself a future, sending this message, that was the most important thing for me. » And for all of Australia.