The most enduring image from the Sydney Olympics is of Cathy Freeman sinking to the ground after her heart-stopping victory in the 400 metres final, an expression of agony, relief and disbelief on her face.
Wearing the expectations of an entire nation as lightly as her remarkable hooded body-suit, the Aboriginal athlete had just run the race of her life, providing the defining moment of the 2000 Games.
It was the pinnacle of her career, and it could never be repeated. So it was not altogether surprising when Freeman announced last week that she had decided to retire. Her heart was no longer in it, she explained. "I've lost that want, that desire, that passion, that drive," she said. "I don't have the same hunger. I won't ever have that same fulfilling moment as I already have had."
The writing had been on the wall for some time. After the Olympics, an exhausted Freeman took a year off, gaining weight and suffering a leg injury on her return. On the track, she struggled to regain form and motivation. In May, she finished fifth in a 400m race in Eugene, Oregon, that was won by Mexico's Ana Guevara, her successor in the world no 1 spot.
The news of her retirement was received with sadness at home. But it also prompted an outpouring of affection for Freeman and pride in her achievements. The 30-year-old Queenslander was one of Australia's few top-flight track and field athletes, the winner of two 400m world titles and an Olympic silver in Atlanta as well as gold in Sydney. A world-ranked athlete every year from 1993 to 2000, she lost only one 400m race in six years, and then she was injured.
But Freeman was, and is, much more than an exceptionally gifted runner. She was a national hero and a symbol of the black-white reconciliation to which so many Australians aspired. When Freeman lit the Olympic flame in Sydney, it was an iconic moment of national unity.
She is also an extremely engaging person, not particularly bright or articulate, but endowed with a spontaneity and natural charm. She seems entirely unaffected by fame. Her former partner and coach, Nick Bideau, once said: "Some athletes want to be famous. Some want to be great athletes. Catherine wants to be a great athlete."
Freeman's athletic gifts were evident early on, when she ran barefoot as a little girl in her home town of Mackay. She won her first international gold medal at 16, in the 4x100m relay at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and became the first Aboriginal athlete to represent Australia at Olympic level when she competed in Barcelona in 1992.
Her most defiant assertion of her roots came at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, where she draped herself in the Aboriginal and Australian flags for her victory lap after winning gold. There were grumbles at home by some of her more neanderthal compatriots.
Since then, her political interventions have been infrequent but well timed. In 1994 she criticised the Australian Football League for using black American athletes in its advertisements rather than Aboriginal footballers. In 2000 she attacked the government for its stance on the "stolen generations" - indigenous children who were removed from their families. Freeman's own grandmother was taken from her mother and moved to an island off the Queensland coast.
Her painful attempts to stage a comeback post-Sydney have been accompanied by difficulties in her private life. Her husband, Sandy Bodecker, a Nike executive, developed throat cancer, and she gave up all but the relay event at the Manchester Commonwealth Games last year to look after him. Nevertheless, in February she announced that they had split up.
Freeman is now with Joel Edgerton, an Australian actor. Her plans for life after running are as yet unformulated, although she has ridiculed the suggestion that she should go into politics.
She will not want for money, at least for a while; her major sponsors - Nike and Australia's Channel Seven - are keen to continue their association. She will be in Athens next month taking part in promotion and marketing campaigns for the 2004 Games.
Having finally made up her mind to retire, a weight appears to have lifted from Freeman's shoulders. The Australian public, too, is relieved. As Ray Chesterton, a sports columnist, wrote: "Nothing would be sadder than seeing Cathy Freeman, minus her vitality and enthusiasm, trudging around the world scene, gradually diluting the wonderment of her previous achievements with disappointing performances."Reuse content