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In end, Freeman was free to be herself


SYDNEY, Austraia - She can't just run, as much as she might want to just run.

Cathy Freeman is a symbol as well as a track star, a symbol of colossal significance in Australia, a 27-year-old Aboriginal athlete who represents the shame of where her country has come from as well as the reconciled reality of where it could go - if everyone is willing to work for that, which they may or may not be.

Her every move is weighed, measured and analyzed for its significance, for what it might mean to Australia's native people and those who persecuted them. What flag is she waving? Who is she running for? What are her innermost motivations?

It's a burdensome reality, a political life she never asked for, although she long ago accepted it, however reluctantly, with the Olympics in her homeland.

You could see it all on her face as she came out of the second turn and into the stretch run of the women's 400-meter final last night. She dug for the finish line in her shoes painted in the three Aboriginal colors, red for the earth, yellow for the sun, black for the people. The weight of her country's gold-medal expectations was on her. A challenger from Jamaica was even with her.

A wall of noise swept through the 110,000-seat stadium, a sound so loud you could almost feel it.

Freeman's face was a portrait of anxiety, her cheeks taut and her eyes blank, her underlying fear as obvious as the low layer of clouds hanging over the stadium.

She knew she couldn't mess this moment up.

She was running for her people and for Australia, even if those were conflicting purposes in some eyes. Since winning the silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, she had won 41 of 42 starts in the 400 meters, stealing the limelight from France's two-time Olympic gold medalist, Marie-Jose Perec, and raising hopes that she would become the first Aboriginal athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event.

She was the perfect flag bearer for Australia's indigenous people, her life touched by the oppression that has been a fact of Aboriginal life. Fifty years ago, her grandmother was taken from her great-grandmother as part of a government program now called the "Lost Generation," in which Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and raised in white homes.

An idea beyond inhumane. And the government still hasn't apologized. In fact, a government official's denial of the existence of a "Lost Generation" led Freeman to speak out against such intolerance with the urging that Australians "start accepting each other's history" - the beginning of her politicization, in a way.

Aborigines were here when the boats from Europe landed in 1788, and if European diseases didn't kill them, European politics did. They were shunted to homelands, murdered, forgotten. They couldn't vote until 1962 and didn't count in the census until 1967. Today, they make up 2 percent of the population and suffer from rampant poverty and alcoholism.

If Freeman won the race, it wouldn't erase the most horrifying chapter in Australia's history, one the government and the people are only now beginning to confront as they take the first steps of what is known here as "the reconciliation."

Nor would it make day-to-day life better for the Aborigines, some of whom encouraged Freeman not to compete in the Olympics because she would just become a tool of the government.

But none of that was on her mind as she turned for home last night with a challenger in her face and the roars raining down on her.

All she wants to do is run.

And in the moment of her life, did she ever run.

Maybe there will be a better, more uplifting moment in these Olympics, but it's doubtful. Freeman found a higher gear and pulled away, crossing the finish line ahead of Jamaica's Lorraine Graham amid the blinding pops of enough flashbulbs to light the stadium twice over.

She had done it. And then she just fell to the ground and sat, the release of all the pressure leaving a sudden, total and palpable exhaustion.

She stared straight ahead for two minutes, unsmiling, unmoved, just a blank slate at the center of the celebration.

"I was totally overwhelmed," she said later. "I could feel the crowd around me, almost over me. All the emotion. The pressure was incredible before the race. After the race, the feeling was beyond words."

Finally, she rose, took off her shoes and began a barefooted tour of the cheering stadium, so exhausted she was unable to jog. Someone gave her a dual flag, the Australian and Aboriginal flags stitched together. She waved it over her head.

Was she barefoot in honor of her childhood? Was the dual flag the right touch?

There are always these questions with Freeman, the symbolism to monitor, the politics to weigh.

It's a lot to ask of a shy, giggly jock married to an American who works for Nike, a woman who obviously would prefer a more private life, yet found herself lighting the Olympic torch before an estimated worldwide TV audience of 3.5 billion during the opening ceremonies.

Her post-race meeting with reporters was genial and predictable. Would her win possibly open any closed minds?

"What's happened tonight will, I'm sure, make a lot of difference to a lot of people's attitudes," she said. "The people walking on the street. The politicians. I know I've made a lot of people happy who call Australia home."

There. It was over. The country was celebrating. She had satisfied everyone's agendas, including her own.

It was fair to wonder if her gold medal really would make life better for the Aborigines, who need a lot more than symbolic victories.

But how much can one wonderful runner do?

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