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A Crash of Symbols

Special to the Times

Fairy tales don’t come any better than this. Close to 110,000 people inside Sydney’s Stadium Australia roared their delight and acclaim as the lithe figure in the green-and-white skin suit surged to the front in the final of the women’s 400-meter run.

Fifty meters from the line, Cathy Freeman knew she had the race won. All pretensions of style were dropped and she flailed her way to the finish. She opened her ears and heard that roar. “I felt like my bones were vibrating,” she recalled.

Ten days earlier, she’d lighted the Olympic flame to signal the start of the 2000 Olympic Games, a moment rife with symbolism and theatrics: the dark, unmistakable face; the body encased in a silver wrap, borne slowly aloft by hydraulics and imagination; the flame, defying water and flaring triumphantly. The torch, on its arrival in the Olympic stadium, passing through the hands of women old and young -- Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Shane Gould; Olympic gold medalists all -- before settling in Freeman’s right hand.

This image, that Australia’s women are its heroes, and appropriately celebrated, was one of two elaborate hoaxes pulled off by the organizers of the 2000 Olympics. The other, it can be argued, was Freeman herself, the focal point of a country that supposedly had made its peace with its original inhabitants, and was now prepared to cede this historic moment to them.

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Cathy Freeman was riding history’s wave. In May 2000, about 250,000 people had marched across one of Australia’s most notable landmarks, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, demanding reconciliation with, and formal apologies to, the aboriginal population of Australia -- the 97% extending a hand to the 3%.

Implicit in this gathering was regret for the wrongs of the past:

* The belief in and practice of eugenics, the scientific study of racial improvement, under which mixed-blood babies and children were taken away from their -- invariably -- aboriginal mothers, to be raised white and proper, as happened to Freeman’s maternal grandmother, Alice Sibley.

* The establishment and maintenance of the missions, the ghettos of outback Australia, where the likes of Frankie Fisher, Freeman’s paternal grandfather, were kept by order of a Queensland government minister in the 1930s, even though he had an offer of a professional rugby league contract in England.

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The operative word was “sorry.” Australia wanted its federal government and, specifically, its prime minister, John Howard, to use this word, in speech and writing. The prime minister, advised of the potentially litigious consequences, kept silent.

In the absence of a formal statement of what Australia now stood for, a symbol would do. Who better than the woman whose grandmother was one of “the stolen generation,” whose grandfather had been denied the very outlet of sporting self-expression that had made Cathy Freeman so famous and beloved?

*

She was talked out, or so she thought. Cathy Freeman introduced herself, tall and relaxed, long arms restless through the sleeves of a powder blue T-shirt. She sat at a conference table in a vacant corner office, high above the baking streets of Melbourne’s downtown. A charm bracelet on her wrist clanked against the table.

On Feb. 22, six days after her 30th birthday, Freeman announced that she and her husband of 3 1/2 years, Alexander Bodecker, a Nike marketing executive 20 years her senior, had separated and that she would be seeking a divorce.

This interview took place four weeks earlier. Freeman did not wear a wedding ring, but spoke candidly of her husband’s battle with cancer, and their relationship.

Since then, Freeman has continued to struggle with form and motivation. At her latest start, the Prefontaine meet in Eugene, Ore., on May 24, she finished a distant fifth to Ana Guevara of Mexico in the 400. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Freeman had had a heated confrontation with her husband, who now lives in Portland, just before the race.

Now based in London, Freeman is still training but is said by her representatives to be contemplating her future.

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She was in the middle of a reluctant return from a sabbatical when Bodecker was diagnosed with cancer of the throat in April 2002.

“Because of what I’ve been through, as an athlete and as an adult, I have this extra confidence in my ability to handle my own emotions and fears,” Freeman said. “But with Alexander’s health, that was fear like ... I can remember driving along, and I’d be overwhelmed with this gripping terror. I’d experienced death with my sister [Anne-Marie, of complications of cerebral palsy] and father [Norman, who died at 53, when Freeman was 19], and it was like I was revisiting that place again.”

Like any successful athlete, Freeman had strode through life, dismissing the doubts and apprehension that are part of most people’s reality. In 2002, her vocabulary was adjusted.

“For the first time,” she said, “this cancer caused me to understand the word ‘can’t’, and the word ‘inability’; the concept of being unable to have it your way, for a change.”

Her husband expressed his fear and how it presented itself -- the image of being stuck in a sandbox, unable to escape. The word “can’t” became a synonym for a type of paralysis.

Which is the antithesis of an athlete’s life.

“Initially, I went a bit nuts,” Freeman recalled. “I tried running away from it. I felt so many emotions. At one point I was going out every night, and I wasn’t wanting to confront it.

“It was a new place; I wasn’t going to be competing this year. I was dealing with my own selfishness, I suppose. From Alexander’s point of view, he was always wanting to maintain a level of normality, but at the same time, I was expected to assume or anticipate what he wanted, which in any case is really difficult between any two people, regardless of whether there was cancer or not.”

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Freeman returned to the track to compete as a member of the Australian team in the 1,600-meter relay at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, in Manchester, England, last August. She could barely move forward for the constant glances over her shoulder.

“Even through those last minutes before I was getting picked up to go to the airport,” she said, “I was almost twisting [Bodecker’s] arm to change his mind, to tell me not to go.”

The Australian team reached the relay final. On the way to the stadium, Freeman rang home on her cell phone. A condition of her departure had been that a friend of her husband would stay with him at their home in suburban Melbourne.

As she spoke with her husband’s friend, in the background she could hear Bodecker vomiting, a legacy of his regimen of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Seven months later, Freeman’s coach, Peter Fortune, heard that story. “She’s quite good at divorcing herself from distractions, especially if it’s a running thing, an athletic thing,” Fortune said.

This suggests an unusually well-developed sense of emotional detachment. In fact, Freeman said, it is the absolute opposite.

“People absorb their experiences,” she said. “There are emotions like that that are just in you all the time. I still have pain in my soul from when I lost my father and my sister, and I’m constantly using that emotion. It was the same with Alexander and his cancer. You take it and it gives you strength; it gives you this amazing power.

“You feel emotions. There’s no such thing as bad feelings, because each feeling is relevant. It’s a spirit, it’s a force, a life force in you. The force of other people.”

And then, when she runs, Cathy Freeman becomes the embodiment of all those memories and hopes, with 50 seconds to distill and reproduce them over 400 meters.

“When I run, that’s my expression,” Freeman said earlier this year. “People draw. People talk. I don’t talk, a lot. I don’t draw a lot either. When I run, it’s not just physical, it’s a manifestation of my emotions, of all of the good, of all of the amazingly wonderful times, magical times, as well as those Godforsaken, horribly low times that come together that make me do what I do, with all my heart and soul.”

That emotional investment is missing at the moment, with Freeman reportedly wondering whether her heart is still in training and competing, in pursuit of a third 400-meter title at the World Track and Field Championships in Paris in August.

In Sydney, that rainy Monday night she won the women’s 400 in the Olympics, it was not only her own history that Cathy Freeman projected, but also a chapter of her country’s. In the capacity crowd that night, there were Australian flags that had the Union Jack cut out from the upper left-hand corner, replaced by the red, black and gold aboriginal emblem. At his home in Cairns, Queensland, Freeman’s uncle, Tolliver Fisher, stood for the Australian national anthem for the first time in his life as it accompanied his niece’s televised gold-medal presentation.

*

“Believe in yourself,” boxer Anthony Mundine tells the aboriginal schoolkids he visits. “Do something for yourself, your friends, your people, your country.”

Mundine is aboriginal, the son of a former Commonwealth light-heavyweight boxing champion, and ranked second in the World Boxing Assn.'s super-middleweight division. He is also a Muslim. In an interview in October 2001, he said of the events of Sept. 11: “If you understand our way of life, that it’s not about terrorism. It’s about fighting for God’s law.”

An outspoken Islamic, aboriginal boxer; a Satanic herald in some quarters of Australian popular life.

“Being an aboriginal in this country, you have to battle adversity,” Mundine said. “I tell [kids] how to get their self-esteem back, to get their pride back. We have no sense of direction as a people. The only way to get that back is from a strong person in the community, to have someone to look up to.”

The circle of aboriginal sporting celebrity is a small one. Mundine says he and Freeman have met, but have not talked at great length.

“I’ve met Cathy, and she seems like a really nice young aboriginal girl. She’s got her head screwed on.”

He would like her to speak her mind, though.

“If you are a champion, people idolize you,” Mundine said. “That’s even better. Then you can make your point to a broader audience.”

*

After her victory in Sydney, Freeman walked a slow victory lap, clutching both the Australian and aboriginal flags. Later, at a news conference, she said there was anger inside her about the way aboriginal people had been persecuted, at how her people had been stolen from their families. She also said that anger would stay where it was.

Rather than fully absorbing or exploiting the moment, Freeman says now that she had already begun to withdraw from it.

“The attention is very overwhelming,” she said. “I like to feel a sense of detachment from the world, sometimes. I like living in a really safe environment. Maybe it’s too much effort to overextend yourself. Maybe it’s a trust issue. Or who knows? God, who knows?”

Two world titles. One Olympic gold medal. An Arthur Ashe Award for courage and humanitarianism. Designation, in February 2002, as one of the 101 “significant leaders of the future” by the World Economic Forum.

“I don’t count,” Freeman said of her achievements and awards. “And I don’t read. I just run. I just run and I compete and I live day to day. I don’t like to over-sensationalize things. It’s no big deal. Maybe I’ll regret one day that I haven’t enjoyed victories enough and enjoyed moments enough, but I figure there’s a life outside of sport as well, and this is just one dimension to who I am, this running stuff.

“I don’t like to take full responsibility for how people feel. It’s very overwhelming for me.”

Mundine said: “She’s been born with great athletic ability and the will to succeed in her sport. But beyond those boundaries, to take all of that pressure on yourself and be a leader of her people and be someone who fights for truth -- she’s not thinking that way. She’s not born in that way.”

Beyond inclination, is there obligation?

Colin Tatz, a historian and visiting professor of politics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, tells of Frank Reyes, a jockey whose successes included riding the winner of the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s biggest horse race.

To and beyond his deathbed, Reyes and then his wife insisted that he was Filipino. Tatz, though, learned that Reyes was aboriginal, a shuffle of identity that had accompanied the history of the country’s most admired sportsmen in the 20th century as they sought to hide their true origins.

Tatz says Cathy Freeman is a freak of chance as well as ability. The fate and choice of most aboriginal women, despairing of ever escaping the spiral of poverty, alcoholism and abuse so common in their communities, is to get pregnant at 14, 15 or 16, in the hope that the welfare payments for a newborn child can fund an escape to somewhere else.

Norman Freeman moved out when Cathy was 5. Her mother, Cecilia, later married Bruce Barber, a white man who worked for the Queensland state railways.

Barber saw the athletic ability in his new stepdaughter, wrote away for coaching manuals, then taught and encouraged her. He also sought job postings that would take him from remote central Queensland to Mackay, pop. 20,000, on the coast. From there, Freeman won an athletic scholarship to a private school in southern Queensland. At 16, she was a member of the Australian team that won the relay gold medal in the 1990 Commonwealth Games.

At 21, she waved the aboriginal flag for the first time, after winning the 400-meter final at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, in 1994. The flag was handed to her by her former business partner, Peter Jess, a white accountant from Melbourne. Complicit in the celebration was her former manager and boyfriend, Nick Bideau. The ratio of celebration to calculation has never been spelled out.

“Her aboriginality is an indelible part of her success,” Tatz said. “She’s successful, not just because she’s a great runner, but because everyone knows what it is she overcame.

“Cathy’s aboriginality has been the prime focus of her total persona, not just by her, but by the media and everyone else. If the aboriginality is so much a part of where she is today, she has an obligation to say something. She can’t shake it off and say, ‘My aboriginal life has nothing to do with my present life or my future life.’ ”

Freeman says her very presence is a statement of her beliefs.

“All I know is that people can see I am proud of my indigenous culture, of where I’m from,” she said, a note of exasperation in her voice. “I’ve flown the aboriginal flag, alongside the Australian flag. Even a 3-year-old child can see that I’m proud of who I am and where I’m from.”

Between Cathy Freeman and those who expect more of her as a political and cultural figure is a gulf of expectation and understanding as wide as any that separates the dueling strands of Australia’s heritage.

“Through my running, it’s a vehicle to communicating fairly important information,” Freeman said, then recited the following information in a sing-song voice: winner of Australia’s 100th Olympic medal, symbol of reconciliation, the indigenous community’s greatest spokesman-leader, blessed with the ability to bridge between white and black.

“I’ve heard it all,” she said.

“I don’t think I can’t do anything. Me being me is someone who loves to run and tries to be the best athlete she can be. And before I know it, I find myself in places where, along the way, people have felt a connection with Cathy Freeman and wanted to be part of the journey. They see good things. They feel safe in feeling that someone like Cathy Freeman is there. They feel a sense of hope, I suppose.”

Anthony Mundine is looking for something more tangible from his country’s most recognizable athlete.

“Running can only do so much,” Mundine said. “You think, ‘Cathy is a great runner, she won a gold medal.’ But in 20 years’ time, 30 years’ time, they’ll say ‘Cathy was a good runner.’ But they won’t say, ‘Cathy stood up for her people. Cathy fought the system.’ My fists can do the talking, but they can only go so far. Your words can last for eternity.”

Gerard Wright is an Australian freelance writer living in Los Angeles.


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