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Sprinter Freeman's world-class talent runs second to role


SYDNEY, Australia - Cathy Freeman moved her people and the world last Friday.

She wasn't received quite as warmly in 1994.

Freeman should be noticed as one of the world's best long sprinters, a favorite to win Olympic gold in the 400-meter dash and a challenger for a medal behind Marion Jones in the 200.

She is known more for her race than her racing, however, and the q-rating for the first Aborigine to run Olympic track for Australia multiplied exponentially when she ignited the torch at the opening ceremonies.

Freeman's selection was seen as a symbol of reconciliation, an attempt to heal the wounds left by Australia's persecution of its indigenous peoples.

She has been a vocal critic of policy and politicians, and at the 1994 Commonwealth Games she made a statement that raised the ire of many Australians.

After her victory in the 400 that year, Freeman took her first victory lap with an Aboriginal flag, the second with the Australian banner. Her action became a political lightning rod here.

Sydney already had begun preparations for the 2000 Games. By last spring, SOCOG organizers had come up with a plan to highlight Freeman in the opening ceremony: She would quietly sneak away from the parade of athletes, don a white full-body warmup and become the final torch-bearer, following Australian heroines from five preceding decades.

The handoff caused many to weep openly, but fanned resentment from those who felt that Freeman didn't deserve the honor.

"You can't please everyone," Freeman said. "Everyone has a different opinion and view."

Ian Thorpe, the 17-year-old swim hero, only has 18,000 yelling for him at the International Aquatic Center. When track and field opens Friday and Freeman steps onto the track as the favorite in the 400 meters, there will be 110,000 in attendance. She is a two-time world champion in the one-lap test, and will tangle with France's Jose Marie-Perec.

Marie-Perec beat Freeman in the Olympic final four years ago. The Frenchwoman has resorted to disguises to avoid the Australian media, but interest in her is scant compared to the glare Freeman suddenly finds herself performing under. She's no longer just another athlete, but an icon for persecuted peoples.

"To tell the truth, I don't know what goes on in the way people perceive me," Freeman said. "It absolutely cracks me up. I'm just going to have a fun time. I'm going to be in and out of the [athletes] village, and I like being around my teammates.

"In terms of growing responsibility [as an Aborigine], that's not a responsibility. As I've become older, I have more pride in who I am. ... I run for myself, but I'm sure whatever I'm feeling, a lot of people will be feeling."

Freeman said she was shocked when Australian Olympic Committee director John Coates took her and her husband to dinner in April, when she was training in Los Angeles, and invited her to ignite the torch.

"My mind was totally blown away, and it took quite a bit of time for it to sink in," said Freeman, who engaged in brief, uncharacteristic introspection when she received the torch from Debbie Flintoff-King.

"When I got the flame, I was more embarrassed than anything. I was concerned with what people were going to think about Cathy Freeman lighting the torch. All that went out of my head. It was an amazing moment for me."

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