The Hero of a Nation Looks Back and Ahead

"There's still an aura of racism and hatred and loathing. It's hard because it does bring up the past ... It's not a secret indigenous people were the first land dwellers of this country. It's pure truth." Kathy Freeman

Barton Silverman (AP) The New York Times 11th September, 2010

Ten years after Cathy Freeman galvanized Australia by lighting the Olympic caldron and winning a gold medal, she is still bringing attention to the plight of her people.

Freeman does not appear to have changed much from the 27-year-old Aboriginal athlete who opened the Sydney Games on Sept. 15, 2000, and won the 400-meter final 11 nights later to fulfill a nation's expectations.

She still has a runner's physique, and still punctuates conversations with an infectious, almost giddy laugh.

But as the name and face of the Catherine Freeman Foundation, a charity devoted to helping to educate Aboriginal children from Palm Island in northeastern Australia, she has no problem conveying the challenge she now confronts. "It is a national disgrace," she said.

Freeman is a long way from Palm, a small group of islands off Townsville in Queensland state where her mother was born, while sitting in the foundation's Melbourne office during an interview.

She recounts the euphoric moments of the Olympics - and how difficult it was to love running while hating the associated hype.

After the Olympics, she admitted to being at a loss about what to do in the future until she looked within.

"Everyone knows I've always been proud of my indigenous roots," said Freeman, who drew official rebuke but public accolades for waving both the Aboriginal and Australian flags during her victory lap at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia.

When she repeated the two-flag celebration after winning Olympic gold, she was unilaterally showered with praise.

After years of trying to dodge the fame Olympic success brought her, Freeman decided she might as well just run with it.

"It just felt so right," she said. "Instead of trying to deny my status here in Australia, I just went with it and that's why the foundation came about - so it doesn't feel so painful."

On Wednesday, Australia celebrates 10 years since Sydney hosted an Olympics that many here view as helping to redefine the country's international profile, giving it the image of a modern, successful and enviable nation.

The bleak history of Australia's indigenous people has long been a blight on that vision.

Although Aborigines make up less than 3 percent of Australia's population of 22 million, they are the poorest and most disadvantaged minority more than 200 years after white settlers arrived, despite billions spent on programs to close the gap.

The Palm mission, Freeman said, was established by the government in 1918 to resettle nearly 2,000 so-called troublesome people forcibly removed from dozens of tribal groups. The community that took root remains troubled, but is also fiercely proud.

Freeman was born on the mainland in nearby Mackay and moved around as a child with her family as her athletic career flourished, but she retains vivid memories of her visits to Palm.

"There are some really devastating living conditions," she says, ticking off its socioeconomic ills. "Palm Island in itself is the fourth most disadvantaged community in Australia: 90 percent unemployment; only 7 percent of kids have reached the national standards in literacy and numeracy; 3,500 residents, only 350 houses.

"There's still an aura of racism and hatred and loathing. It's hard because it does bring up the past. Everyone's country has got a past they don't feel good about. The nice thing about who I am, is I represent something that is possible."

Freeman does not pretend to speak from the perspective of Palm's residents. She is just determined to help improve their situation.

"I've never dealt with a community or let alone an individual who's been hurt so much and burnt so badly," she said. "We're talking about years and years of hurt," dating to when people like her great-grandparents were "sent there under a really sort of concentration camp regime."

The death in 2004 of a man in police custody sparked riots on the island that left the police station and courthouse in ruins.

An inquest found that blows from a police officer contributed to the death, but there has never been a conviction.

"There's been one letdown after the other," said Freeman, whose main aim is to build trust and bridge the gap between outsiders and the people of Palm.

"I'm doing what I think I've always been born to do in a way," she added. "I'm not wondering why. I don't overanalyze it. It's a continuum of what I've already done on the track. It fulfills. It's a oneness more than a separate journey."

Her foundation sponsors scholarships for seven girls to attend boarding schools. Freeman also visits Palm every few months to reinforce the rewards-based program her foundation fosters to improve school attendance. The highlight of those trips is playing with the children.

"I'll go for a run and they say, 'There's Cathy Freeman, there's Cathy Freeman,' " she said. Some youngsters want to race her.

Mayor Alf Lacey of Palm Shire said Freeman's foundation has had success in improving education on the island.

"It's really important for our community, where you don't have a lot of choices or options," Lacey said in a telephone interview. "It's about the kids, the next generation and giving them opportunities earlier generations didn't have."

Freeman's profile is helping on and off the island.

"Cathy's a good influence," Lacey said. "She's been able to get through doors, talking it up through the private sector and the government sector, and getting them to know it's very important."

Freeman was the first Australian Aboriginal athlete to win an individual Olympic gold. She was a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist when she was asked to light the Olympic caldron in 2000.

At the time, debate was raging in Australia about whether the government should offer an official apology to thousands of Aborigines who were forcibly removed from their families under assimilation policies that were not abandoned until 1970. A national inquiry in the 1990s laid bare decades of abuse and trauma for many in what is known as the Stolen Generation. Australians of all backgrounds shed tears when Freeman lighted the flame.

"A dear friend of mine says that I have a lot to do with flying that flag," Freeman said. "The indigenous culture, people are now concerned. It's just nice to have played a part.

"For me it was just a simple expression of pride. It's not a secret indigenous people were the first land dwellers of this country. It's pure truth."

Kevan Gosper followed Freeman's career after working with her in 1991. A former vice president of the International Olympic Committee, he said he was concerned that the pressure of lighting the flame and winning gold at the same Olympics would be too much. Gosper was relieved after Freeman won the 400, and hugged her when he presented her with the gold medal.

"She's an Australian icon," he says. "It made every Australian proud. She is a symbol of all that's good about relations between indigenous Australians and other Australians."

Freeman is only just now starting to become comfortable with reliving her Olympic experience.

"Now that I've found this purpose with the foundation," she said. "I've understood I really need to accept it and embrace it."