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Australia's Great White Hope that isn't
By Mario Lopez

Now, the world knows.  Three weeks ago, not many people outside of Australia knew Cathy Freeman.  Her first exposure came during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games.  The Olympic flame was passed to Freeman and along with it, the hopes for the future of Australia.

You see, Cathy Freeman is an Aborigine in a nation that in many respects is only beginning to deal with its blemished past.  When she first sought to identify with her heritage by carrying the aboriginal flag after a victory four years ago, she was criticized by those who would rather not deal with the specter of government abuse doled out along racial lines.  Freeman’s own grandmother was a member of Australia’s stolen generation, so named because at an early age, she was stripped from her natural family and given to a white family, in accordance with Australian public policy.  But to Freeman, acknowledging her heritage was natural.  She smiled and told the people of Australia, “This is who I am.”

For a few minutes after her final sprint to the 400-meter gold medal, the hope for Australia, and for the Olympic games, seemed bright.  For these games, which have been maligned for low TV ratings, the inclusion of certain events (trampoline), and everything in between—Freeman’s boost couldn’t have come at a better time.  Ditto for her country.  Even before the games, and her lighting of the Olympic flame, Freeman’s warm-heartedness had managed to win over the majority of Australians.  She ran a victory lap with the Australian and aboriginal flags intertwined (as if to gently highlight her earlier point) to the delight of 110,000 spectators in Sydney’s Stadium Australia.

The last half of this century coincided with an international system in which west and east battled for global hegemony.  The fields of play, especially the Olympic games, were forums where the United States and the Soviet Union, went toe-to-toe for national, and even ideological, pride.  But even outside of the US-USSR rivalry, the Olympics are a stage where political and social ideas have added to the drama.  The first monumental marriage of the modern era was Jesse Owens’ wonderfully insulting victories in Hitler’s Berlin.  Cathy Freeman’s 49.11 seconds of adulation is added to this lore.  Just a few years ago, the thought of someone doing all the things Freeman has done to bring attention to her people seemed improbable.

Not even the news that American track star Marion Jones’ husband, C.J. Hunter, has failed four drug tests during the summer could distract from Freeman’s achievement.  The beauty of sport has long undergone assault from every corner.  Most harmful is the damage done from athletes themselvesHunter’s drug test failure just being another example.  Athletes have increasingly needed everything from attitude adjustments to jail time.  The Olympics specifically have suffered, mostly from scandal within the organization and drug use among its participants.

Much of Freeman’s greatness comes from quiet determination and an uplifting attitude.  A lesser citizen-athlete would have approached the spotlight from an entirely different perspective.  Charles Barkley’s rants, Michael Irvin’s arrogance, and O.J. Simpson’s audacity may spark commentary and social criticism, but Freeman’s soft-spoken determination, the shades of Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe, make a much bolder, harder-to-ignore statement.

We can learn much from Cathy Freeman, what she represents, in sport, and in life.  “Sport is this great arena for drama and it’s a reflection of life,” she said after her performance.  In sport, and in life, Cathy Freeman is true to herself.  She is unapologetic, even if she wasn’t pompous, about what she stood for.  She knew what she had to do and who she was.  And now, the world knows, too.

 © Mario H. Lopez, 2000

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