The Electronic Telegraph
Sunday 27 May 2001
Sue Mott

THE socio-political revolutionary couldn't make up her mind about breakfast.
"Oatmeal?" she said, eventually. "And honey and cream?" she added
interrogatively, as though it might not be allowed. Che Guevara was never
like this, surely. Nor so radiant with unselfconscious bonhomie, swinging a
plastic bag with a vivid cat motif over one shoulder, eyes smiling through
lashes of Disney proportions. "I like cats," she explained, catching the
drift of my gaze. "I think I'm a cross between a wildcat and a child."

Golden Girl: Cathy Freeman poses with Sir Steven Redgrave at this week's
Laureus Awards in Monte Carlo
So Cathy Freeman, obligingly, summed herself up. And sporting history could
do no more than concur. Without the wildcat, she could never have found the
predatory energy to deliver one of the most monumental performance seen at
the Olympics in the final of the women's 400 metres. Without the child, she
would never have found moments of innocent refuge from the mounting of such
torrential pressure which would have torn apart a lesser being.

Aboriginal pride, patriotic duty and ethnic advancement were thrust into the
athletic argument between eight girls on a running track. Win a race and
unite Australia, they told her. But on that day, on that start line, she
merely shook them off like drops of water from an animal pelt. And pelt is
the word. She ran the last 100m in under 13 seconds, pulling away with every
stride from her immediate rivals and, to an equally obvious extent, the rest
of the human race. That was an effort of superhuman dimensions.

She let out a gurgle (pre-oatmeal, fortunately). "I spin when I just think
about the Olympics," she said. "Awwwww. I just feel tight thinking about it.
Oh. My. God. I guess I've always been away with the fairies a little bit. My
friends would describe me as dizzy. I can be spacey and vague. I'm very good
at detaching myself and that helps me. There are no words. I can't do it
justice. It's frustrating in a way because I so want to share it. `Madness'
is the word that comes to mind. That comes closest to how it felt."

In the aftermath she has given herself a year off. To eat honey on her
oatmeal, globetrot with her husband, establish a foundation for the
underprivileged and breathe easily for the first time in seven years.
Perhaps also to absorb her new place in Australian society. "She's our
sacred cow," said a leading commentator, the sports editor of The
Australian. "She's our Dalai Lama."

Plus, Carlos Santana sent her a `well done' note.

So are the mighty lauded. This week she was in Monte Carlo to pick up a
Laureus Award - sport's equivalent of an Oscar - for Sportswoman of the Year
2000 and the global television pictures confirmed what we already knew. She
is a natural in running spikes. On high heels, she is a dangerous novice and
she accidentally plummeted down the ceremonial staircase into the arms of an
astonished Prince Albert.

It made the graphic point that the dividing line between heroic success and
failure is stiletto thin. And lying in bed just days before her Olympic race
with laryngitis, sneezing, asthmatic, on antibiotics and unable to take the
simplest decongestant for fear of the Olympic drug testers, Freeman seemed
to be facing the rough end of destiny.

"I was lying on the bed with my cats, Billy and Bob, looking up at the
ceiling, thinking: Oh my God, the Sydney Olympics are, like, days away. But
I refused to panic."

And then she stood under a waterfall of ice cold water in the dead of the
night. Twice. That was the flame-lighting moment of the opening ceremony
(and rehearsal) which set the tone of wonderment, significance and beauty
for the whole duration of the games. But, boy, was it wet. "I was drenched.
Soaked. Oh my God, my legs! Couldn't you see my legs quivering."

She had thought it a mistake when they asked her in April to perform the
ancient rite. "Are you sure? Are you sure?" she kept asking them. "Look, if
you change your mind, I'll understand." In fact, it was yet another stroke
of the organisers' genius, but it did mean that Freeman's pre-Olympic
preparation consisted of: being sick, flying into Sydney, not getting to bed
until 5 am because of the rehearsal, doing a day's training on top of being
emotionally and physically exhausted and then, by the way, in the full gaze
of a few billion, lighting the Olympic flame under Niagara.

I'd have been in a clinic, I said. Any sentient human would, surely. "No,
look, don't even go there!" she grinned. But whether it was the missing
ingredient of Marie-Jose Perec, the reigning double Olympic champion,
operatically psyched out by running against Freeman plus five million
Australians, or whether it was her ferocious preparation - "I trained like
I'd never trained in my life" - she settled into her blocks that night in
September. . . "focused, calm, relaxed.

"Actually, it was one of my most conservative races with all due respect to
the other competitors. It would have been easy to become emotional, go out
way too fast and then hit the wall. It was fear that kept me from going
faster. I was really, really aware of being emotional. I actually had every
right to sensationalise that race in my head. But I forced myself to be

This may be exactly how it was, but it may also denote a hard veneer of
hindsight especially after criticism levelled at her race by her ex-coach,
ex-lover and current litigation wrangler, Nick Bideau. Freeman doesn't `go
there' either. Their court case to settle their finances has long since
become a terrible bore to the Australian public who are now viewing it
philosophically as a divorce case where the CD collection is replaced by
multi-million trust funds. In any event, it has irritated but not tarnished
Freeman's reputation. Actually, she could embark on a lifelong career as a
master criminal and her reputation would be safe.

Forever in Australian eyes she is the little elfin girl in the running suit
who reformed a nation. The unwitting revolutionary who just may,
single-handedly, have given the indigenous population of her country a sense
of hope. She has a 16-year-old nephew. You can infer he has been in a number
of scrapes. "To see the joy on his face after the race was something that
will always stay with me." You feel she sensed a reclamation and so did
Australia as a whole.

"But what really buzzes me is the reaction of the elders, people like my
grandmother, who were separated from their parents as part of the move to
assimilate Aboriginal children in white families. Imagine. It was like a
prison within a prison. Imagine seeing your child walking across a street
and not being allowed to make any contact with them.

"My grandmother didn't like to talk about it. My mother doesn't. But she is
slowly learning she must. That these stories must be shared. But I guess the
pain was too much."

"Eat!" interrupted her agent, Chris, all paternally. "Wha. . .?" she said
vaguely. He meant her porridge. It is the glorious dichotomy of the Freeman
phenomenon that on one hand she is her nation's muse and redemption and on
the other, she's a big kid.

"Oh, maybe it just comes back to being a bush kid. Living without the
pressures you live with in the city. I grew up in the bush, where little
kids would go round with no shoes on, you'd go down to the river banks and
have races, ride bikes around, go bare-back horse riding. There will always
be part of me that is a country bumpkin. My mother's always telling me you
have to concentrate on your spirituality. Whether that comes from nature I
don't know."

This is where her career began. Noticed at eight, disciplined at 14 by a
Romanian coach, Mike Danila, she credits to this day for teaching her a
crucial lesson. "He taught me: you've got to turn up."

It was a fairly fundamental element in anyone's career. Being there. But in
the end, she had no choice. "Running was as natural to me as breathing. It's
almost as though it was all I was good for."

Well, at least the only thing she was good for has brought her fame, riches,
joy and a seminal moment in her country's history. The riches, however, are
not being translated into furs and Ferraris in the time-honoured tradition
of have-nots acquiring sudden and abundant wealth. What is she spending it
on? "You know what," she said, growing wonderfully conspiratorial. I
expected yachts, islands, mansions, butlers. "I absolutely love

Oh, for heaven's sake. She is, for one of the planet's most famous women,
ridiculously unspoiled. She was asked to donate a small personal item to a
charity auction the other day. Rummaging around, she found a pair of running
shoes. "Er, Cathy," said her husband, Sandy, an executive with Nike, "you
won your Olympic gold medal in those." "Did I?" she said, astonished.

"There's people who are motivated by money, material things, adulation. I
mean they're absolutely a waste, total pap in my book," She laughed at the
absurdity. "How people can be interested in those things I'll never
understand. It's not solid."

Unlike her ambitions, the fiercest of which is to return to the track for
the Commonwealth Games in Manchester next year. There has been talk of her
stepping up to the 800m, but that would definitely not happen until after
2002. So a rerun with Britain's Katharine Merry, the Olympic bronze
medallist, is anticipated.

They know each other well. "You can't help but check out the opposition,"
said Freeman. "I often wondered what all the fuss was about. Not in a
disrespectful way. There was all this expectation around her. I remember
seeing documentaries around her, but she hasn't actually translated that to
winning major races yet.

"But Katharine is one gutsy competitor. I've really taken an interest in
her, especially being coached by Linford Christie, an Olympic champion." My
look probably betrays an ambivalence on the subject of Christie and the
inevitable taint surrounding his positive drug test because she started to
slide away into cool, refreshing shallows of vagueness. "I've really no
thoughts on. . . that," she virtually sang.

But Merry she has distinct thoughts about, not least the speed of the
Briton's transition from the sprint to the lap. "It took me from 1992 to
1996 to get it right. It wasn't until I raced Sally Gunnell, bloody Sally
Gunnell, in Gateshead that I learned that to be too soft, too scared, I'd
run out of strength. Because it hurts, it hurts," she squealed and laughed

This year doesn't. This year is the triumphal tour, well-deserved, but so
replete with cream and honey some are wondering whether Freeman will find
the desire to return to training and competition. She doesn't doubt that she
will. But nothing, athletically, can top the experience she already has.

"Oh, I'm sure my life will only get better. I'm a happily married woman and
we haven't had children yet. I'm more than just a sports person. But I'm
such a simple person too. Cats and family."

Her agent looked at his watch. "Eat," he said.

Eamonn Condon

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