Cathy Freeman was under enormous pressure to bring home gold in the 400m final at Sydney.
Photo: Getty Images
Cathy Freeman's gold medal win in the 400 metres at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 will forever go down as one of the most memorable moments in Australia's history.
The pressure on Freeman was intense and unprecedented. While the decision to give her the task of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony could not be brought into question, it's arguable the honour did her no favours in her bid to handle that pressure.
Frenchwoman Marie-José Pérec headed to Sydney with the intent of spoiling the party. Pérec won gold in the 400m in Barcelona and Atlanta (where Freeman won silver), and was looking for three on the trot.
But by the time Sydney had arrived, Pérec was 32 years of age and Freeman was five years her junior. It was billed as Freeman's opportunity to dethrone the ageing queen of the event.
However, Pérec decided to abandon the Games before competition began, saying she felt the Australian media were invading her privacy and even made the accusation that she was threatened while here.
On the one hand, news that her fiercest rival had withdrawn may have come as respite to Freeman, on the other, it added further weight to the already astronomical expectations. According to the media, the threat was now gone and victory was a mere formality.
Freeman's win carried significant meaning for a huge amount of Australians as it gave them the opportunity to express empathy towards not only Freeman, but all Indigenous Australians.
This was further illustrated in the closing ceremony when Midnight Oil and their front man Peter Garrett donned black 'SORRY' T-shirts while singing "Beds are burning" to let the world know how a lot of Australians felt about past treatment of the Aboriginal people.
Interestingly, other cities that placed bids for the 2000 Olympics were sent a collection of documents in 1992 that outlined and were critical of Australia's behaviour and attitude to Aboriginal people.
The lobbyists who sent the documents had attempted to derail Australia's Olympic bid, as they were of the belief Australia was a racist country.
Those lobbyists were proven wrong on the evening of September 25, 2000, when all Australians, including the 112,524 people at Stadium Australia, the millions watching on television, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, and side by side, as Freeman crossed the finish line first.
The overwhelming emotion on Freeman's face looked to be one of relief. Who could blame her? Her legacy as a runner was to be defined by this night. Win gold, and you're a hero forever, but any other result would have been a disappointment. Thankfully, the latter didn't occur.
Her triumph was our only athletics gold medal of the Games but it clearly meant so much more and her carrying of both the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag at the race's conclusion gave her the ability to express her feeling of being not only Australian but a proud Indigenous Australian.
Freeman announced her retirement from competitive running in 2003, citing a lack of motivation stemming from the reality that her achievement in Sydney couldn't be topped as the reason for her decision.
Watch Freeman's run home for gold in Sydney:
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