FREEMAN: Cathy’s Story, Twenty Years On

A few weeks ago, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of her iconic race, the ABC premiered FREEMAN, a documentary which I now declare to be mandatory viewing. I watched it while sandwiched between both of my parents, who by chance were sitting in the Olympic Stadium to watch Cathy Freeman’s semi-final race for the 400m on September 24, 2000. Time flies almost as fast as Cathy’s legs do. 

Cathy Freeman and her notoriety will dwell in the zeitgeist of Australian history in the 1990s and 2000s forever. For this reason, I have always known her name – as have many. Almost ashamedly, it wasn’t until this documentary that I fully realised the strength of her story or her importance as a woman, a sporting figure, and an Indigenous Australian. 

As most documentaries do – we start from the beginning. We follow a young Aboriginal girl whose mother is of the Kuku Yalanji people of far north Queensland, and her father of the Buri Gubba people of central Queensland.  We watch Cathy grow up, saddened that  people didn’t smile back at her when she smiled at them. For her, as for most of us, she shares the importance of her family and how that shaped her athletic career. The ABC published a great interactive article titled ‘Cathy Freeman’s golden run’ which was a superb visual representation of Cathy’s career and that night in September she is so well-known for.

As a shy, happy-go-lucky sixteen-year-old at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, she surprised swathes of athletics fans by taking home gold for the 4x100m relay. For the next 12 years, she existed as a permanent fixture in athletics and, still to this day, is the only person to be awarded with both the Young Australian of the Year (1990) and Australian of the Year (1998). There’s quite an incredible video of her handicap win at the prestigious Stawell Gift in 1996 is truly remarkable.

Cathy Freeman stood in the nineties as essentially an Adam Goodes figure who balanced her position as a high-profile sports person in the 1990s with her identity as an Indigenous member of the community. 

20 years ago, there was a heightened sense of tense race relations between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the Australian Government. Cathy consistently made a statement and drew considerable controversy for carrying the Aboriginal Flag alongside the Australian flag both in the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and again in Sydney in 2000. The Aboriginal flag, though recognised as official in Australia, is not a national flag or recognised by the International Olympic Committee. Her response to the media was simple – “I’m here to run and that’s all I’m going to do”. She further explains her decision in the documentary saying – “I wanted to shout ‘Look at me, look at my skin, I’m black and I’m the best.’ There is no more shame.”

Adam and his field battle dances were a direct reaction to the racism he faced, and he was right to blaze up again the fire of an important conversation. However, Cathy’s choice to carry both flags seemed a natural thing to do – to celebrate both her identities. 

Parallel to the narrative timeline, there is a beautiful and unique feature that exists in the documentary. It is of Lillian Banks, an Aboriginal dancer with the Bangarra Dance Theatre, whose movements and slow dance echo Cathy’s preparation of the body to prepare for racing. The synchronicity of the narrative and this dancer are so poignant and captivating juxtaposed against the chaos of the narrative; Cathy (and this dancer) are peaceful and still. It is a very different stance to the noise and the pressure that built up leading towards the 400m race in the 2000 Olympics, while the world’s eyes were on her. 

FREEMAN ultimately shines a spotlight on Cathy’s place as an Indigenous Australian woman in a country that was (and still is) split by racial prejudices, seeking acknowledgement of the past in order to move towards a future of reconciliation.

In 1997, the Bringing Them Home Report was the first time that the Stolen Generations had been acknowledged officially by a national inquiry. Sorry Day has been recognised ever since. A report like this is a significant step in the right direction. In light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, I certainly think that it is important to acknowledge the ongoing fight for recognition. When this report was published, then Prime Minister John Howard refused to issue a public apology. That didn’t happen until 11 years later, when Kevin Rudd made a formal apology in February 2008. 

Here is an extract of the Bringing them home report from 1997. 

The histories we trace are complex and pervasive. Most significantly the actions of the past resonate in the present and will continue to do so in the future. The laws, policies and practices which separated Indigenous children from their families have contributed directly to the alienation of Indigenous societies today.

For individuals, their removal as children and the abuse they experienced at the hands of the authorities or their delegates have permanently scarred their lives. The harm continues in later generations, affecting their children and grandchildren.

In no sense has the Inquiry been ‘raking over the past’ for its own sake. The truth is that the past is very much with us today, in the continuing devastation of the lives of Indigenous Australians. That devastation cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commits itself to reconciliation. 

Moving towards reconciliation in this country is a slow-moving train. Though it is felt deeply on an emotional and social level that change has happened albeit not without continued suffering, the current legislation and fundamental government policies do not seem to match the sentiment, not since 1997 at least.

In 2007, Cathy created the Cathy Freeman Foundation to help Indigenous children and their families recognise the power of education and achieve their goals and dreams. The Foundation works with more than 1600 Indigenous children and their families with specialised educational programs “aiming to improve school attendance and ultimately increase Year 12 attainment and are effective in extending the children’s horizons and future opportunities.” 

I was only five when Cathy Freeman won her gold at the Sydney Olympics. In this time of cancelled Olympiads and pandemics, the montages of people’s faces in the crowds make me nostalgic for a time that celebrated being together as a part of a shared history. You ask our parents, or our uncles and aunts and they will tell you where they were when Cathy Freeman raced. 

She held our hearts and I would say she still does, twenty years later. It is wonderful and refreshing to hear her talk about that moment for herself. Her story is powerful, and not surprisingly it is about much more about running.

You can watch it for free now on ABC iView.

Highly recommended viewing. 5 stars, because, c’mon it’s Cathy Freeman.

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