Athletics: Freeman is anything but a free woman

Simon Turnbull hears why Seville is only a warm-up for Sydney

CATHY FREEMAN had just struck gold in the Estadio Olimpico. She could not, however, raise a smile to match the sparkle of the medal she was about to receive. "Right now," she said, "I'm just relieved. The pressure's off - for the moment. But this is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what I'll be going through next year."

Of all the athletes crowned as world champions in Seville these past 10 days, none will carry a greater burden away from Andalucia than the Australian winner of the women's 400m. Freeman needed no reminder of that as she sat by the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir on Friday morning. She got one anyway, though. "The Sydney Olympics are only 13 months away now..." her first questioner began. Freeman winced and rolled her eyes skyward.

If she had worn a vacant expression the night before, after resisting the late challenge of Anja Rucker to become the first woman successfully to defend the world 400m title, it was entirely understandable. Freeman has been in Seville only in body this week. In spirit she has been miles away - some 10,000 miles away. As she put it: "This is all a dress rehearsal for Sydney."

When Freeman returns to Australia, after her last race of the season in Rieti a week today, she will do so as the golden girl under pressure to come up with another golden run on home soil in the Olympics. Racing her rivals will be only half the battle. And coping with the weight of public expectation could be the more difficult half.

"I realise that the pressure is going to be tenfold in Sydney," Freeman said. "It's going to be much, much crazier. I knew if I couldn't deal with all the pressure here I certainly wouldn't be able to deal with it next year. That's why I was just really relieved last night. I was just glad that the whole thing was over.

"This is the first time I've gone into a championship at world level as the favourite and I've been torturing myself with worry. I ran really, really scared. I've never run that scared before, not even when I was running as a child with my brothers. Like I said, I know it's going to be 10 times this next year. I just hope I can handle the off-the-track stuff."

And Freeman is sure to have a lot to handle. At 26 she has been a national icon for five years now - since she won the 200m and 400m at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, becoming the first Aborigine athlete to win a major track and field title. The girl from a broken home in an impoverished Murri community in Mackay, north Queensland, was Australian of the Year in 1998, an honour bestowed upon her by the Prime Minister, John Howard, at the annual Australia Day ceremony. She will be carrying the hopes of the host nation on her well-defined shoulders when the Sydney Olympics open on 14 September 2000.

"The demands on Cathy next year will be huge," Brian Roe, the Australian team's media manager, said. "She's big news in Australia at all times anyway. She can't walk in the street without being stopped by everyone."

She can, though, in Hampton Hill. And it is in the Thames-side hamlet that Freeman is likely to be found in the summer build-up to Sydney 2000. Last year she bought a house in the London suburb and she intends to make use of it to escape what she calls "the pressure pot of my own country."

That pressure pot will hardly have been eased by Freeman's success in Seville. As she dug deep in the home straight, holding on grimly after pulling clear in that delightful skipping style of hers, she became the first Australian to win two world titles. Rob de Castella, winner of the marathon in Helsinki in 1983, is the only other Aussie athlete who has been on top of the World Championship podium.

On Friday morning the victory that brought the broadest smile to Freeman's face was not her own but that of her people. Her success in Seville just happened to coincide with a formal apology in the Australian Parliament in Canberra for 200 years of injustice suffered by the country's indigenous population. "I'm so happy," Freeman said. "It's such a significant moment for the indigenous community of Australia and for all Australians. It really means a lot."

Freeman's mother, Cecilia, was one of Australia's "stolen generation", as the Aborigine children separated from their families by government policy became known. It is little wonder Freeman flouted team regulations by taking an Aborigine flag on her victory laps at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and 1997 World Championships. She had no need to in Seville because the colours of the flag - "black for the people, red for the land and yellow for the sun" - are now displayed on her specially designed running shoes.

She also has a tattoo on her right arm bearing the legend "Cos I'm Free." A Freeman and a free woman she may well be, but Australia's golden girl has 13 months of imprisonment by public expectation ahead of her.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future