Twenty years after Sydney, Freeman's Olympic legacy endures

  • Tuesday 15, September 2020 09:17 AM
Sharjah 24 - AFP: When Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron in Sydney to launch the "best-ever" Olympics 20 years ago Tuesday, then donned a full bodysuit to become the first Aboriginal to win an individual gold medal, she etched her name in sporting folklore.
Her exploits remain the defining moment of a Games which also saw 17-year-old Ian Thorpe burst on the scene, gaining instant stardom with his three golds and two silvers, and the debut of fellow teen swim sensation Michael Phelps.

In a country still struggling to reconcile itself with its indigenous peoples, long-time Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates, now IOC vice-president, recognised Freeman could be a pivotal figure.

"I was the one who asked her to light the cauldron," he said in an interview.

"For me, she was an existing (400m) world champion, she'd had silver in the Atlanta Olympic Games and she was indigenous. And I think that was very important.

"I took Cathy to dinner in Los Angeles and she said to me: 'Why me?' and she named a lot great Australians," he added.

"And I said, 'You're a current world champion, you're Aboriginal and this will play a part in the reconciliation of our country'."

The identity of the cauldron-lighter was shrouded in secrecy until seconds before Freeman emerged from the shadows in a luminescent white costume to carry the Olympic flame on the final part of its journey from Greece to open the Games.

It stands as a defining image to this day and capped an epic opening ceremony that celebrated Australian culture, emphasising its Aboriginal heritage.

Seen as a symbol of unity, Freeman carried the weight of a nation's political and sporting hopes on her shoulders even before people knew she would light the cauldron, with her face plastered on posters everywhere.

While her part in the opening ceremony was an emotional moment, it paled in comparison to delivering on the track in the 400 metres, an event that captured the world's attention.