Freeman, Cathy 1973–
Cathy Freeman 1973–
Track and field athlete
Catherine (Cathy) Freeman was born on February 16, 1973 in Mackay, Queensland in Australia and would become not only a world-class track star and Olympic gold medal winner but also a symbol of hope and unity for all of her country. From a very early age Freeman’s talent in running was apparent. Her stepfather told her at the age of ten that she had the potential to win a gold medal in the Olympics if she received the correct training. Though she was undeniably fast, it was not easy for an Aborigine, a member of Australia’s indigenous community, to receive the support necessary to become a world-class athlete. Freeman was one of the a handful of Aborigines to earn a helping hand in the form of a scholarship to a boarding school where she was afforded the resources to fully develop her talent.
She first appeared on the Australian national track scene as a 15-year-old in 1988 when she performed well at the National School Championships. Since Australia had very little sprinting talent at the time, she was encouraged the next year to try out for the 1990 Commonwealth Games team. At the age of 16 she made the team as a sprinter then became a member of the gold medal-winning 4x100 meter relay team. From that moment on Freeman came to national attention not only as an incredibly gifted runner, but as an incredibly gifted Aboriginal runner. At the age of sixteen she began to deal with the pressures of not only participating in a sport at a world-class level, but also representing her country and her community, which were not always compatible.
After the Commonwealth Games her days in high school events were over. She competed in the 1990 Australian National Championships and won the 200-meter title and then went to the World Junior Games in Bulgaria, participating in the 100, 200 and the 4x100 meter races. In her personal life she was befriended by an Australian track official named Nick Bideau. Freeman’s relationship with the older man would grow from coach and mentor to an all-encompassing coach, manager, personal assistant, and finally, boyfriend.
By 1992 she had made the switch to the 400-meter event and qualified to represent her country in the Barcelona Olympics. In the biggest meet of her life she advanced to the second round of qualifying in the 400-meter event and ran well in the 4x400 meter team that participated in the final of the Spanish Olympics.
At a Glance…
Born Catherine Freeman, February 16, 1973 in Mackay, Queensland in Australia to Cecilia Barber (a social worker); married to Alexander Bodecker.
Career: First ran in a national meet at the age of 15 at the Australian Schools Championships, 1988; member of the Australian Commonwealth Games track team, 1990, 1994; member of the Australian Olympic track team, 1992, 1996, 2000.
Awards: Young Australian of the Year, 1990; Aboriginal Athlete of the Year, 1991; Commonwealth Games, Gold Medal in the 200 and 400 meters, 1994; Atlanta Olympic Games, set four Australian records for the 400 meters, Silver Medal in the 400 meters, 1996; won 22 consecutive 400-meter finals including two World Championships, 1997, 1999; named Australian of the Year, 1998; Sydney Olympic Games, lit the Olympic caldron to open the games, Gold Medal in the 400 meters, 2000; ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, 2001.
Addresses: Home—Melbourne, Australia; Office —c/o Athletics Australia, Suite 22, Fawkner Tower, 431 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne 30004, Victoria Australia
Still only 19 years old, Freeman won the silver medal in the 200-meter race at the World Junior Championships. The following year Freeman again ran in the 200 meters—this time at the 1993 World Championships—and was able to advance to the semi-finals. Despite her accomplishments at such a young age, she sometimes had self-doubts. She told Tony Stephens of the Sydney Morning Herald that on a flight from England she questioned her future: “I thought about the pressure, the training, the Aboriginal thing. Then I remembered everyone is human and you’re allowed to try and make something of your life, tackle it with your heart, soul and guts and nothing less. That way it was all up to me. But was I capable of doing it?”
The following year answered many of the young runners questions about her talents and her identity. 1994 marked her arrival as a force in track and field and in the arena of Australian consciousness. In the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Colombia in Canada, Freeman won both the 200 meters and the 400 meters. Her performance launched her forward in the world rankings, but what happened after the races was what raised eyebrows all over Australia. After winning the 400-meter final, Freeman took her victory lap not with the Australian flag draped around her shoulders, but with the Aboriginal flag. Reaction was immediate and severe because she had not celebrated her victory with her country’s banner. Team chief Arthur Tunstall publicly criticized her for the political statement and barred her from displaying the flag again. But Freeman was unrepentant and used the opportunity to talk about what the flag and its colors—red for earth, yellow for sun, and black for skin—meant to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.
After her victory in the 200 meter final she took another lap of honor again with the Aboriginal flag despite Tunstall’s orders not to do so. In an article posted on the Sports Illustrated website Freeman explained her rational for carrying the Aboriginal flag: “I know that when Aboriginal people look at that flag, they all feel good about themselves. If I can help Aboriginals feel good about themselves, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Freeman’s first display of Aboriginal pride, which was condemned in 1994, is celebrated today by many different types of Australians because of the person that she is. When the Olympic Games were held in Sydney in 2000, the Aboriginal flag was not only on display, but given official recognition in six designated Olympic areas of the city. When Freeman celebrated her Olympic gold medal six years later in front of the home crowd she did so with the Aboriginal and the Australian flags intertwined—and the whole country celebrated with her. She even went on to make a commercial with Tunstall which, in typical Australian fashion, made light of the whole incident. In a tea commercial she asks Tunstall if he would like his tea white. Her old nemesis replied, according to the Sports Illustrated website, “No, black’s just fine with me.”
Freeman was expected to continue to improve in 1995, but in the World Championships she finished fourth in the 400 meters. She turned herself around the following year, setting four national records in the 400 and making a bid for a gold medal in the Olympics in Atlanta. She ran her first sub 50-second 400 meters in 1996 which culminated in a 48.63 at the Olympic Games. Though the time was a personal best, Freeman had to accept silver as France’s Mari-Jose Perec won the gold.
After winning an Olympic medal Freeman’s life was turned upside-down. She went from being almost famous to instantly recognizable in Australia. She met the Dalai Lama and Bill Cosby. She made some changes in her personal life also. After a six-year relationship with Bideau, she broke off the romantic part of their association. While he remained her manager, she was becoming more independent, donning a nose ring and cutting off almost all of her hair. On the track she went on a three-year winning streak. Despite a heel injury in 1998, Freeman won 22 consecutive 400-meter finals, including the World Championships in the 400 meters in 1997 and 1999.
On the personal side, 1999 turned out to be significant for reasons that had nothing to do with track and field. After her break-up with Bideau in 1996, Freeman met a Nike executive named Alexander Bodecker. The relationship started out professionally and then evolved into a more romantic link. By 1999 Bodecker and Freeman were talking openly of marriage. As her relationship with Bodecker grew stronger, the track star’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend and business manager grew more strained. When Bideau began to give the two advice about the timing of their impending wedding at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain, Bodecker confronted him and told him that Freeman’s private life was none of his business. After a misstep like that, it was only a matter of time before Freeman’s former mentor was out of her life completely.
On September 19, 1999 Bodecker and Freeman were married outside San Francisco in a small, private ceremony. Though some of Freeman’s friends were upset that she had eloped, back in Australia Freeman-mania had already started to begin in anticipation of a gold medal performance at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Though she kept her focus on training for her 50 seconds of Olympic glory, the outside world continued to intrude upon her regimen. As was almost inevitable, she dropped Bideau as her agent and there would be repercussions from that decision. Three months before the Olympics Bideau and his management company, the Melbourne International Track Club, filed a lawsuit against Freeman for breach of contract. All of Australia came down on Bideau for the timing of the legal action. Her lawyers called the lawsuitun Australian. The lawsuit was eventually postponed until after the Olympics, which would become Freeman’s own personal stage as a symbol of a new Australia.
Up until they began, the Sydney Olympics were plagued by doubters wondering if the city was large enough, or if the country had the resources to pull off an Olympics Games. But perhaps the biggest worry for Olympic organizers was the reaction of the Aboriginal community. Certain groups had promised protests and threatened violence during the Games to highlight the plight of the Australian Aborigine. Some called the Olympics a lie, promoting unity while the indigenous people of Australia were excluded from every other segment of society.
All of those doubts and fears about the Sydney Olympics seemed to evaporate after the appearance of one Cathy Freeman on the opening night of the games. She had been chosen to be the final bearer of the Olympic torch and to light the cauldron inside Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. She told John Jeansonne of News-day about her feelings at the moment when she officially opened the 2000 Olympic Games: “I tend to think more of the negative side of things, the criticism that might be out there. But when I took the torch, all of that went out of my head, and there was absolute energy and emotion from all the people in the stands. It was an amazing feeling.” She seemed to echo the emotions of all Australia in expressing the anxiety of hosting an Olympic Games and then finally the joy and pride of the final event. But Freeman’s Olympics were just beginning.
She entered the 400 meter final as the overwhelming favorite, especially since the defending Olympic champion Perec had gone back to France vowing never to return to Australia again. A crowd of 112,524 people crammed into the stadium to watch her gold medal run. The rest of the country was watching on television. Freeman’s torch lighting had exposed her story to the rest of the world. Moments before the race, the public address system announced her name amid the deafening roar of the Sydney Olympic Stadium, but she seemed not to notice. She simply stared down her lane and showed no emotion at all. When the gun went off to start the race, the country may have felt a moment of panic as Jamaica’s Lorraine Graham took an early lead. But Freeman turned it on after 200 meters and ended up winning the biggest race of her life in a time of 49.11 seconds. The stadium exploded with joy; even members of the Australian press had tears in their eyes.
Freeman, weighed down by the expectations of 19 million people for over a year, sat down on the track and took her shoes off. In the middle of the noise and the thousands of camera flashes she got up to run her lap of honor barefoot. She took the Australian and Aboriginal flags, draped them together, and celebrated all the way around the track. Instead of criticism for her one-time politically explosive act, now all she received was adulation. She told Louise Evans of the Sydney Morning Herald about the feeling upon crossing the finish line: “It was more relief than anything. When you have dreamt something for so long and it finally happens it really spins you out. It turns your world around and upside down. I had to sit down. I think I felt everyone’s emotions inside of me all of a sudden. It blew me away.” Freeman had succeeded beyond even her own imagination, not only as the 400-meter Olympic champion, but as a symbol of Australian unity and power.
As the face of the 2000 Olympics, Freeman could have chosen any path she wanted. Politicians were already mentioning her as a viable political candidate, and there were endorsement deals which could make her rich for the rest of her life. But she decided to take some time off and spend some time out of the public spotlight. It was rumored that she would make her comeback at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, but she would make no comment. Her coach said that any event from the 100-meter dash to the 400-meter hurdles was open to her. But no one could really say, because the runner herself stayed out of the public eye.
Though she made no comments about herself, others could not stop talking about the Freeman effect. Australian writer Tom Keneally told Time Magazine: “She is capable of great power. I’m skeptical about the idea that sports changes things any more that poetry or fiction can do, but this is quite like when Jackie Robinson played major league baseball in America, and if any sports event can change things, this one has a chance.”
Newsday, September 20, 2000.
Sydney Morning Herald, September 26, 2000; September 26, 2000.
Time, October 9, 2000.
—Michael J. Watkins
Australian track and field athlete
Australian runner Cathy Freeman is the first Aborigine ever to compete in the Olympics, and the first to wave the Aboriginal flag at a sporting event. Freeman lit the Olympic flame at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and won a gold medal in the 400 meters at those Games.
A Difficult Childhood
Freeman's grandmother was part of the "stolen generation" of Aboriginal people in Australia—from the early 20th century until the 1970s, many Aboriginal children were taken from their parents to be raised in state-run institutions. This practice was intended to remove the children from the poverty, disease, and addiction that plagued many aboriginal people, but it also resulted in tragically broken family ties and loss of ancient cultural traditions.
Although Freeman was not taken from her family, she had a difficult childhood. She was molested as a child, and both her younger sister and her father died.
When Freeman was still a girl, her talent in running was obvious. Her mother, Cecilia, encouraged her to pursue her interest in athletics, and when she was ten, her stepfather, Bruce Barber, told her she could win a gold medal at the Olympics if she trained properly. However, although she had the talent, she was also a member of a minority group that historically had not had access to the same resources that other athletes had. Freeman was one of only a few Aborigines who won a scholarship to a boarding school where she could learn and train.
At the age of 15, she competed at the National School Championships, and did well enough to be encouraged to try out for the 1990 Commonwealth Games team. She made the team as a sprinter, and was a member of the 4 × 100-meter relay team, which won gold at the Commonwealth Games.
In 1990, she competed in the Australian National Championships, winning the 200 meters, and then ran in the 100, 200, and 4 × 100-meter races at the World Junior Games in Bulgaria. During this time, she met Nick Bideau, an Australian track official who would later become her coach, manager, and boyfriend.
Competes in Barcelona Olympics
In 1992, she competed in the 400-meter relay at the Barcelona Olympics, making it to the second qualifying round. She also was a member of the 4 × 100 meter team, which ran in the final but did not win a medal.
At the World Junior Championships in 1992, she won a silver medal in the 200 meters. In 1993, she made it to the semifinals in the 200 meters in the World Championships.
In 1994, Freeman won the 200 meters and the 400 meters at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. After winning the 400 meters, Freeman ran her victory lap, carrying not the Australian national flag, but the red, black, and yellow Aboriginal flag. She was chastised in the press, and Australian team leader Arthur Tunstall told her she should not display the flag again. Freeman used the publicity she got to publicly discuss what the flag meant to Aboriginal people, explaining its symbolism: red for earth, yellow for sun, and black for skin.
Defying Tunstall's orders, she ran with the flag again after winning the 200 meters.
Wins Olympic Silver
At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Freeman won a silver medal in the 400 meters. After those Games, she broke off her romantic relationship with Bideau, although he continued as her manager. Freeman won the World Championships in the 400 meters in 1997 and 1998, even though she suffered a heel injury in 1998.
In 1999, Freeman met Alexander "Sandy" Bodecker, an American executive for the Nike shoe company, and the two fell in love. As a result, her relationship with Bideau became strained, and she eventually fired him. Freeman and Bodecker were married on September 19, 1999, in San Francisco. Bideau subsequently claimed that she owed him over $2 million in assets from deals he negotiated while he represented her, leading to a long court battle.
Wins Gold at the Sydney Olympics
Freeman was, of course, Australia's favorite to win a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 2000 Olympics, held in Sydney. Like any athlete, Freeman wanted to win in order to meet her own goals, but she also knew that she was viewed as a representative of the Aboriginal people, and she wanted to win for them. "I could feel the crowd all over me," she told Mark Shimabukuro in the Sporting News. "I felt the emotion being absorbed into every pore of my body." When she won, with a time of 49.11 seconds, she was so relieved that she dropped to her knees on the track after completing the race.
Freeman's shoes were yellow, black, and red, traditional Aboriginal colors, but after she won, she took them off and ran her victory lap barefoot, in traditional Aboriginal style, carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags around the track as the crowd cheered. According to Andrew Phillips in Maclean's, an Aboriginal observer said, "Cath's done it for all of us." This time, instead of being chastised for carrying the Aboriginal flag around the track, she was widely celebrated.
"All That Pain, It's Very Strong"
Freeman's win was hailed as an achievement for Australians and Aborigines, and was celebrated by a song, "Cos I'm Free," which became an Australian hit. The words are taken from a tattoo Freeman has on her right shoulder, signifying her pride in her Aboriginal heritage.
|1973||Born in Mackay, Queensland, Australia|
|1988||First national meet at Australian Schools Competition|
|1990||Competes in Commonwealth Games|
|1992||Competes in Barcelona Olympics|
|1994||Conmpetes in Commonwealth Games|
|1996||Competes in Atlanta Olympics|
|1999||Marries Alexander Bodecker|
|2000||Competes in Sydney Olympics|
|2002||Competes in Commonwealth Games|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1990||Young Australian of the Year|
|1991||Aboriginal Athlete of the Year|
|1994||Gold medals, Commonwealth Games, 200 meters and 400 meters|
|1996||Sets four Australian records in the 400 meters; silver medal, 400 meters, Atlanta Olympics|
|1997-99||Wins 22 consecutive 400-meter finals, including two World Championships|
|1998||Australian of the Year|
|2000||Gold medal, 400 meters, Sydney Olympics; lights Olympic flame|
|2001||ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award|
|2001||Laureus Sportswoman of the Year|
|2002||Gold medal, 4 × 400 meters, Commonwealth Games|
Freeman, like many of her country's 360,000 Aborigines, would like the Australian government to apologize for the abuses inflicted on her grandmother and others who were taken from their families as children. According to Phillips, she said of the government's refusal to do so, "All that pain, it's very strong, and generations have felt it. There's a sense of sadness and anger."
After her Olympic win, Freeman endured harassment by tabloid newspapers, a continuing court fight with Bideau regarding the disputed assets, and her husband's diagnosis with throat cancer. Regarding the constant scrutiny by tabloids and the often inaccurate stories they published about her, she told Brian Cazaneuve in Sports Illustrated, "I get so bloody tired of [hearing about] myself. Can't people focus on others who need [publicity] more than I?" She also said, "Public approval isn't important to me. Caring for my husband is."
In 2001, Freeman was voted Sportswoman of the Year by the Laureus Sports Foundation. Because of her husband's illness, Freeman announced that she would not compete during the 2002 season, and observers speculated that she might retire from her sport. She did carry the Olympic flag into the stadium at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. However, when Bodecker began undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment, her friends encouraged her to keep herself busy by training. Bodecker also encouraged her, saying it would help him to see her compete.
Thus encouraged, Freeman returned to competition at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, held in Manchester, England, as a member of the 4 400-meter relay team. Although Freeman's lack of training meant that she was not running at her fastest, her team won by 1.1 seconds. In an article in the Melbourne, Australia Sunday Herald Sun, Freeman told a reporter that she planned to continue competing in 2003.
Address: c/o Athletics Australia, Suite 22, Fawkner Tower, 431 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne 30004, Victoria, Australia.
"Cathy Freeman," Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 29, edited by Ashyia Henderson, Gale Group, 2001.
"Cathy Freeman," Newsmakers, Issue 3, Gale Group, 2001.
"Cathy's Glad to Be Back on Track," Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), (January 5, 2003): 52.
Cazeneuve, Brian, "Stress Therapy," Sports Illustrated, (August 12, 2002): R8.
Dimmier, Eleni, and Rachel Nowak, "Cathy Freeman," U.S. News and World Report, (August 20, 2001): 7.
Hurst, Mike, "How Getting to Know One of the Greats of Athletics Has Changed Freeman's Life," Daily Telegraph (Surry Hills, Australia), (November 14, 2002).
"Laureus World Sports Awards in Monte Carlo Honors Year's Best Athletes," Jet, (June 18, 2001): 52.
Phillips, Andrew, "A Race for All Australia," Maclean's, (October 9, 2000): 51.
Shimabukuro, Mark, "Her Flame Lingers," Sporting News, (October 9, 2000): 60.
Sketch by Kenneth R. Shepherd