It was one of Australia’s most iconic moments. But it also highlights the sad fight many Australians still face, says Oliver Murray.
It was one of Australia’s most iconic moments. But it also highlights the sad fight many Australians still face, says Oliver Murray.

Horrible racism behind Cathy Freeman's famous moment

OPINION

Twenty years ago Cathy Freeman stopped the nation not once, but twice in the space of 10 days.

All of Australia watched as Freeman won the 400m in front of 110,000 people at Sydney's Olympic stadium on September 25, 2000.

Ten days earlier she was unveiled as the secret final torch bearer to light the Olympic cauldron inside the stadium.

It was something Freeman - who had the race of her life just 10 days later - was reluctant to do.

"When Coatsey (AOC President John Coates) asked me to do the honours, I was really taken aback. There were a few other people who I thought were so deserving of the honour," she told The Daily Telegraphthis month.

"At the time, I was also more concerned with my body's health and making sure I was getting enough rest.

"It wasn't until I got to Sydney, in those days before the Opening Ceremony that I started to think, 'OK I have to be in this moment'."

It was an iconic moment in not only our sporting history but the history of Australia.

Twenty years ago Indigenous Australians were fighting for an apology to the Stolen Generation. Just months before the Olympics 250,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians had marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge for reconciliation.

And here was a proud and outspoken Indigenous Australian on the world stage representing Australia.

It's easy to look back at that moment with rose-tinted glasses. A moment that shows how accepting white Australians have been of Indigenous Australians.

But I have vastly different memories of that opening ceremony.

At an 18th birthday party in country NSW, the family whose daughter was turning 18 had moved the TV outside so everyone could watch the ceremony.

But despite it being a huge moment in our history, there are only two things I remember from that event.

 

Nikki Webster, 13 and Aboriginal dancers performing during Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Nikki Webster, 13 and Aboriginal dancers performing during Olympic Games opening ceremony.

The first was when a young Nikki Webster entered the ceremony surrounded by Aboriginal dancers.

A partygoer - who would have just been 17 or 18 - yelled out that Nikki wasn't safe with so many Aboriginal men around her.

It was a disgusting comment that shows just how acceptable it was to be openly racist 20 years ago. Sadly, it's probably still acceptable in some circles today.

When the torch bearers reached the stadium it was a parade of former Australian Olympians who did the final legs.

Then it was Cathy's moment. No one knew she would light the cauldron.

But the decision to use Australia's greatest athlete at the time didn't please everyone at the party.

 

Cathy Freeman ignites the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony.
Cathy Freeman ignites the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony.

 

People started to boo as Cathy took the torch and started the final run before lighting the cauldron surrounded by water.

You could just say this was a group of teens who didn't understand the importance of this moment. They didn't understand how racist it was to boo a prominent Indigenous woman during one of the biggest moments in her career.

But that would be ignoring how much Freeman had to fight during her whole career.

Like how Australian Commonwealth Games official Arthur Tunstall said Freeman should have been kicked out of the 1994 Commonwealth Games when she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her victory lap after winning gold in the 200m.

Or when Freeman was just a girl and didn't receive a trophy after winning a race, instead watching non-Indigenous girls who finished behind her receive them.

 

Cathy Freeman celebrates her Olympic gold with the Indigenous and Australian flags.
Cathy Freeman celebrates her Olympic gold with the Indigenous and Australian flags.

 

"What did upset me at time was my parent's reaction; they were more upset than me," Freeman said years later.

It's easy to look back at Freeman winning the 400m gold in Sydney or lighting the cauldron and forget the racism she faced.

She was even warned in the lead up to the 2000 Games she could be stripped of her medals if she celebrated with the Aboriginal flag.

There were concerns it would breach an Olympic rule by being seen as a political gesture.

But when she won the 400m, she carried both flags proudly.

The 20th anniversary of Freeman's gold medal should rightly be celebrated this month as a moment that brought Australians together.

But it should also be a reminder of how much more Indigenous Australians have to fight to be accepted in Australia. And that it's a fight that still continues.

Oliver Murray is the deputy editor at news.com.au

Originally published as Horrible racism behind famous moment


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