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Freeman lights up Sydney

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  • she was one of the very few native aborigines to achieve success
  • she was chosen to light the Olympic flame at the 2000 Sydney games
  • she always carried both the Australian and aboriginal flag on her lap of honor
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(CNN) -- At the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, declared that the Games had been the best ever.

Freeman celebrates after winning gold in the 400 meters.

Freeman celebrates after winning gold in the 400 meters.

Superbly organized and featuring a record 10,651 athletes, Sydney produced a number of memorable moments, such as Steve Redgrave's fifth consecutive rowing gold and the three golds and two silvers taken by Ian Thorpe in the swimming events.

But one performer stood out above all others: Australia's Cathy Freeman.

Every Olympics produces one unique individual who somehow comes to define those Games: Jesse Owens in 1936, Emil Zatopek in 1952, Nadia Comaneci in 1976.

In 2000 it was the aboriginal Freeman, whose lighting of the Olympic flame and subsequent victory in the 400 meters were of huge symbolic significance to a nation still wrestling with the legacy of its maltreatment of its indigenous peoples.

Freeman was already an Australian sporting icon prior to Sydney 2000, having won two gold medals at the 1994 Commonwealth Games (for 200 meters and 400 meters), and back-to-back 400 meters gold medals at the 1997 and 1999 world championships (as well as a 400 meters silver medal at the 1996 Olympics).

It wasn't simply her athletic prowess that had made her a national heroine, however (in 1998 she was named Australian of the year), but the fact that she was one of the very few native aborigines to achieve success, sporting or otherwise, in a country that until 1962 had refused to even allow aborigines the right to vote.

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Although she was never an overt political activist, preferring to make her statement on the running track, Freeman was nonetheless deeply proud of her heritage, and made a point, whenever she won an international race, of carrying not just the Australian flag but the aboriginal one as well on her lap of honor.

Powerful statement

Her choice as the person to light the Olympic flame at the Sydney 2000 opening ceremony -- the last in a relay of Australia's great Olympians, and the first time in Olympic history a participating athlete had been given the honor -- was seen as a powerful statement of national contrition and reconciliation.

If her role in the opening ceremony was replete with symbolism, however, it was just a prelude to the events of 10 nights later when, in the most eagerly anticipated contest of the Games, Freeman lined up in lane six of Stadium Australia for the 400 meters final.

Wearing a hooded green and yellow bodysuit, and cheered on hysterically by a sell-out crowd of 110,000 people -- not to mention the tens of millions glued to their television sets worldwide -- she paced herself perfectly through the race, crossing the finishing line in a time of 49.11 seconds to take the gold medal, ahead of Lorraine Graham of Jamaica and Britain's Katharine Merry.

So intense had been the pressure she was under, and so enormous the weight of expectation resting on her shoulders, that, once the race was over, she could do nothing but sit down on the track and hang her head, physically and emotionally exhausted.

"I was totally overwhelmed," she later said. "I could feel the crowd totally around me, all over me. I just felt everybody's emotion and happiness and joy. I was totally absorbing it into every pore in my body. I just had to sit down."

Her victory was not simply a great sporting achievement, but a defining moment of modern Australian history, the entire country united in jubilation at a performance that seemed to hold out hope for a less divided, more racially inclusive society.

When she had finally recovered herself Freeman came to her feet again and, holding the Australian and Aboriginal flags above her head, set off on a lap of honor, the stadium echoing to the sound of the chanting of her name.

"Her victory was one of the great sporting events of our generation," said Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "She is a great Australian."

"All I know is that I made a lot of people happy from a lot of backgrounds who call Australia home," was Freeman's assessment of her achievement.

She retired from athletics in July 2003.

All About Olympic GamesSydney (Australia)

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