Athletics: Freeman is anything but a free woman

Simon Turnbull hears why Seville is only a warm-up for Sydney
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The Independent Online
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.