News, Culture & Society

Where were you when Cathy Freeman won her 400m gold medal at the Sydney Olympics 20 years ago?

Babyboomers know just where they were in 1963 when they heard president John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and six years later when man first walked on the moon.

Subsequent generations might remember watching the Berlin Wall being torn down in 1991 and South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela walking out of prison the previous year.

The Color Toner Experts

Then came Princess Diana being killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, planes flying into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, the Bali bombings 13 months later.  

For Australian sports fans there are few such truly indelible, almost universal memories. Perhaps the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup by beating Uruguay in 2005; probably the America’s Cup triumph of 1983. 

Then there is September 25, 2000 – day 11 of the Sydney Olympics – and the great Cathy Freeman.

As the 20th anniversary of Freeman’s famous 400m final approaches, Australians have been telling each other where they were that night when she carried a nation’s expectations to fulfil her destiny and conquer the world.

 

As the 20th anniversary of Cathy Freeman’s famous 400m Olympic gold medal approaches, Australians have been telling each other where they were that night when she carried a nation’s expectations to conquer the world and fulfil her destiny

As race favourite Freeman was under unimaginable pressure having won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics . She is pictured celebrating her race win on September 25, 2000 in front of her family. Her mother is pictured next to Freeman in glasses, with blue top and yellow stripe

As race favourite Freeman was under unimaginable pressure having won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics . She is pictured celebrating her race win on September 25, 2000 in front of her family. Her mother is pictured next to Freeman in glasses, with blue top and yellow stripe 

A crowd of 110,000 filled Sydney Olympic Stadium to watch Freeman in her hooded bodysuit and almost half the country's population of 19 million tuned in on television. Spectators are pictured in Belmore Park near Sydney's Central train station for the race

A crowd of 110,000 filled Sydney Olympic Stadium to watch Freeman in her hooded bodysuit and almost half the country’s population of 19 million tuned in on television. Spectators are pictured in Belmore Park near Sydney’s Central train station for the race

A crowd of 110,000 filled Sydney Olympic Stadium to watch Freeman in her hooded bodysuit and almost half the country’s population of 19 million tuned in on television.

Now it seems the stadium must have actually held ten times its capacity and the 10 million Australians who claimed not to be watching actually were.

Freeman’s main competition was supposed to be Marie-Jose Perec of France. She had won the two previous Olympic 400m gold medals but fled the country before the event in mysterious circumstances. 

As race favourite 27-year-old Freeman was under unimaginable pressure having won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and being crowned 1999 world champion.

She had lit the Olympic cauldron on the Games’ opening night and had to run the race of her life in front of her home crowd. 

As Freeman stood at the starting blocks in lane six the stadium erupted in applause and she clapped three times. The gun went off and 49.11 seconds later Freeman had won the gold medal.

The look on her face said relief rather than joy. She pulled down the hood of her suit and dropped to her haunches, then put a hand to her face and closed her eyes. 

With her shoes and socks off Freeman draped herself in the Aboriginal and Australian flags and smiled for the first time as she saluted the crowd.  

A new ABC documentary simply called ‘Freeman’ looks at the 400m final from her perspective but has inspired others to tell their own stories.  

‘Everybody’s got a personal story of what happened to them when they watched the race – where they were, what they did,’ writer, director and producer Laurence Billiet has said. ‘I wanted to capture what the race was for her.’

Once Freeman had take off her shoes and socks she draped herself in the Aboriginal and Australian flags and smiled for the first time as she saluted the crowd

Once Freeman had take off her shoes and socks she draped herself in the Aboriginal and Australian flags and smiled for the first time as she saluted the crowd

Australia had won only five track and field gold medals since the 1960 Rome Olympics, making Freeman's performance all the more extraordinary. She is pictured with the 400m gold medal

Australia had won only five track and field gold medals since the 1960 Rome Olympics, making Freeman’s performance all the more extraordinary. She is pictured with the 400m gold medal

What the race meant for the rest of Australia depends on who you ask.

For some it was simply a great sporting achievement by a champion athlete but many saw a watershed moment in a nation sometimes divided by race, for once completely united.

Coming from a country which had won only five track and field gold medals since the 1960 Rome Olympics, Freeman’s performance was all the more extraordinary. 

American sprinter Michael Johnson, who won the men’s 400m gold medal later that night, said all eight finalists in that event stood trackside to watch Freeman race. 

Those who witnessed the event recall much the same things: the tension before the starter’s gun, the drama of the race itself and, particularly, the noise.

Volunteers, officials and spectators at other venues within the precinct all recall the deafening roar of the crowd.  

For those watching on television the race has the soundtrack of commentator Bruce McAvaney who marked Freeman’s win by declaring: ‘This is a famous victory, a magnificent performance. What a legend. What a champion.’

For some Freeman's win was simply a great sporting achievement by a champion athlete but  many saw a watershed moment in a nation sometimes divided by race, for once completely united

For some Freeman’s win was simply a great sporting achievement by a champion athlete but  many saw a watershed moment in a nation sometimes divided by race, for once completely united

Radio stations have this month been asking listeners to call in with their memories of watching Freeman win gold. 

‘I was there,’ Damian told Triple M’s Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy. ‘It was absolutely amazing. 

‘We were basically at the 40m mark of the 100m straight and there was this deathly silence went over the stadium as they were about to start the gun.

‘And then basically as they ran it was like the slowest Mexican wave going around the stadium and the roar just kept getting louder and louder and everyone was going just absolutely mental. It was awesome.’ 

Don watched the race at home then went down to his local indoor cricket centre and found games were running 40 minutes’ late.  

‘I went up to the counter I said, ‘The game’s running really late – why is the game running late?”‘ 

‘He said the whole centre stopped, every game stopped and hit the bar and just watched the whole race.’

As Freeman stood at the starting blocks in lane six the stadium erupted in applause and she clapped three times. The gun went off and 49.11 seconds later Freeman had won the gold medal.

As Freeman stood at the starting blocks in lane six the stadium erupted in applause and she clapped three times. The gun went off and 49.11 seconds later Freeman had won the gold medal.

How Nike executives ‘saw dollar signs’ when Cathy Freeman won 

Wendell Sailor was a childhood friend of Cathy Freeman and watched the race

Wendell Sailor was a childhood friend of Cathy Freeman and watched the race

Retired rugby league and union international Wendell Sailor grew up with Cathy Freeman in Queensland and was at Sydney Olympic Stadium when she won her gold medal.  

‘I was very lucky to be there with my beautiful wife and some of the highest profile people in Australian sport at the time,’ Sailor told Triple M’s Dead Set Legends radio program.

‘James Hird, Gorden Tallis, Darren Lockyer, Laurie Daley, you name it they were there.’

‘The best was just before Cathy ran we were with the Nike officials and we were sitting in the grandstand. 

‘All of a sudden the Nike official takes a phone call and he goes, “She’s wearing the suit” and we’re sitting there going, well what do you mean?

‘Apparently there was a chance that she wasn’t going to wear the suit but they just knew the impact that if she wore it and then she won. 

‘So when she came out she had the suit on, we’re just excited and the atmosphere was so electric.’

Sailor said ‘the place went off’ when the race began and he remembered mostly feeling relief when Freeman won. 

‘But also also just seeing the Nike officials – they were so excited, I think they were seeing dollar signs.’

Marcus was living in Thailand. ‘We were in Bangkok at the Australian embassy along with thousands of other Australians and hangers-on,’ he said. 

‘We all watched the race and went apes**t when Cathy won it and then halfway through the evening everyone had been given a number and that number got drawn out and this lady got to light this fake cauldron.’

Allan was working in the Olympic precinct as a volunteer at the water polo.  

‘I was the scoreboard operator and we were in the middle of a game which was duly halted to watch the race,’ he said. 

‘I had the Swiss timing guys with me… and the IBM guys and girls from Spain, they were cheering just as hard. It was fantastic.’

The ABC has put out an appeal to users of its Facebook pages: ‘Where were you when Cathy Freeman won Gold at the Sydney Olympics?’

The look on Freeman's face said relief rather than joy after winning the gold medal She unzipped her suit, pulled down the hood, put a hand to her face and closed her eyes

The look on Freeman’s face said relief rather than joy after winning the gold medal She unzipped her suit, pulled down the hood, put a hand to her face and closed her eyes

Donna Smith was on an indoor netball court and four teams watched the race on a small television as time was called on two games that were being played. 

Laura Feldhahn was in the pub at Barcaldine about 1000km north-west of Brisbane on her first trip to the Queensland Outback just shy of her 18th birthday. 

Melissa Marie also watched the race from a pub, this one in Sydney. ‘The whole place exploded in ecstasy, singing Waltzing Matilda. One of the most memorable moments of my life.’ 

How Bruce McAvaney called Freeman’s win 

Bruce McAveney’s call of Freeman’s win is considered a highlight of Australian sport commentating. 

This is how he saw the famous race: 

‘Away. Freeman out well. A mighty roar surrounds the stadium. 

Ogunkoya wide, Seyerling, Freeman, they’re holding their stagger early. 

Graham’s gone out strongly in the back straight, she’s in the middle. So down the back, Cathy, three from the left.

Graham’s gone out really hard to Guevara. Freeman going strongly, up to almost halfway. She’s three from the top. 

You can see Graham inside of her, probably in front. Merry’s having a good run. 

This is where Cathy exploded in Atlanta. 

Graham’s in front of her. Freeman’s got work to do here – there’s about 150 to go. Guevara and Merry are right up. It’s gonna be a big finish. 

Into the straight, Graham leads. Freeman runs up to her, Merry inside, Cathy lifting, goes up to Graham, takes the lead, looks a winner, draws away from Graham and Merry. 

This is a famous victory, a magnificent performance. 

What a legend. What a champion.’

Linda Miller was at a touch football game when play stopped so everyone could watch Freeman on a TV in the canteen. ‘Magic moment,’ she wrote.

Shelley Argent had known Freeman when they were children growing up in Mackay, the sugar cane capital of Australia. 

‘Cathy and I both started as juniors at Slade Point Athletics Club and we were both in the stadium that night,’ she wrote. 

‘I was in the stands eating pies and drinking beers and she was winning gold. We were sitting about 20m from the finish line and it was one of the most special things I’ve witnessed. 

‘We stood there crying and clapping for at least three minutes after. I’ve never felt a whole crowd united in their appreciation and praise for an athlete.’

Rose Coleho: ‘I was at the stadium at the finish line sitting on the top rows. The most amazing, emotional sports moment in my life.’

‘The crowd were all on their feet chanting “Cathy, Cathy”. When she crossed the line everybody was hugging each other and crying – it was absolutely amazing!’

Kim Flannery: ‘I was in my lounge room with my two children aged 12 and 14. I jumped up and down and screamed at the TV, Go Cathy, Go Cathy.’

‘My kids couldn’t help themselves and before she rounded the corner for home we were all up and cheering and urging her over the line! I Love Cathy for giving us that moment.’

Jenn Milton gave birth that day and all the nursing and midwifery staff came into her room to watch the race at night.

Louise Roberts listened to the race on a boat at Pittwater in northern Sydney, went to bed and woke at 4am when her waters broke. She gave birth 12 about hours later. ‘Good times.’ 

Not everyone polled had such fond memories. Sharon Palmer was stuck in hospital with a tricky pregnancy. 

‘Missed all of the Olympics and we had tickets to Cathy’s run and some great other events,’ she wrote. ‘Didn’t see anything, but that baby ended up healthy and a talented sportsperson.’

Deb Bayfield was in the stand one row back from Freeman’s family and three down from Ron Clark, the great 1960s middle and long distance runner.

Andrea Pringle was in London watching on television in a shop.  Suzanne Monin was at the Red Planet Hotel in Kathmandu in front of a tiny black and white set. Lynne Wright was in Narrabri glued to the TV in a van.

Freeman won the race in a time of 49.11 seconds ahead of Lorraine Graham of Jamaica in second place and Katharine Merry of Great Britain who finished third. Heide Seyerling of South Africa (sixth) is pictured left and Mexico's Ana Guevara (fifth) right

Freeman won the race in a time of 49.11 seconds ahead of Lorraine Graham of Jamaica in second place and Katharine Merry of Great Britain who finished third. Heide Seyerling of South Africa (sixth) is pictured left and Mexico’s Ana Guevara (fifth) right 

Those who witnessed the event (pictured) recall much the same things: the tension before the starter's gun, the drama of the race itself and, particularly, the noise. Volunteers, officials and spectators at other venues within the precinct all recall the deafening roar of the crowd

Those who witnessed the event (pictured) recall much the same things: the tension before the starter’s gun, the drama of the race itself and, particularly, the noise. Volunteers, officials and spectators at other venues within the precinct all recall the deafening roar of the crowd

Clarinda Jordan was in a building near the stadium buying Olympic merchandise watching a huge screen on the wall. ‘When the race started the whole place went silent,’ she wrote.

‘Suddenly we heard the roar from the stadium begin, to which we began cheering along. An amazing race by an amazing young woman.

Deborah Ward was lucky enough to be trackside that night and will never forget the noise. 

‘The noise was like a freight train arriving. It was overwhelming… We were up high but in line with the finish line. Her relief was obvious to everyone. That whole night was magic!’

Jim Richardson was on a dude ranch in Texas having rented out his Sydney home for the Games. ‘The only time during the trip I felt homesick.’

Bronwyn Hanson was in a youth hostel in the UK’s Lakes District when an announcement over the PA system said due to overwhelming demand the race would be screened on the television in the common room. 

‘I remember the Australians in the room screaming for Cathy as she turned into the straight. Thinking about it even now gives me goosebumps.’

Sue Hancock was on the phone to her daughter during the race. ‘When Catherine sat on the track after the finish my daughter was concerned for her, but I said, “It’s the emotion. She’s OK”.’

Freeman holds the Aboriginal and Australian flags as she runs a lap of honour barefooted

Freeman holds the Aboriginal and Australian flags as she runs a lap of honour barefooted 

Women’s 400 metre Olympic final in Sydney on September 25, 2000 

1. Cathy Freeman – Country: Australia – Lane: 6 – Time: 49.11

2. Lorraine Graham – Country: Jamaica – Lane: 4 – Time: 49.58

3. Katharine Merry – Country: Great Britain – Lane: 3 – Time: 49.72

4. Donna Fraser – Country: Great Britain – Lane: 2 – Time: 49.79

5. Ana Guevara – Country: Mexico – Lane: 5 – Time: 49.96

6. Heide Seyerling – Country: South Africa – Lane: 7 – Time: 50.05

7. Falilat Ogunkoya – Country: Nigeria – Lane: 8 – Time: 50.12

8. Olga Koltyarova – Country: Russia – Lane: 1 – Time: 51.04 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


Comments are closed.