Cathy Freeman: Running into Icon Status

A runner in starting blocks.
Sun rays coming down on the Aboriginal Australian flag.
Cathy Freeman.

Already as a young child, Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal Australian, discovered a talent and liking for running. Around the same time, she also experienced something that she interpreted as unequal treatment in the same sport. In an organized competition in school, as Freeman remembers it, she won a race but didn’t receive a prize, even though some non-indigenous race winners in the same event did. The experience opened her eyes to inequality, but quite remarkably, didn’t faze her very much. The important thing, Freeman thought, was that she had won her race. This attitude would help her stay focused throughout her athletic career, and eventually take her all the way to the Olympic final of the 400 meters in Sydney in the year 2000.

Olympic success

Having finally arrived at the highlight of her career — the 400 meter Olympic final at home in Sydney — an entire nation pinned its hopes on Cathy Freeman as she settled into the starting blocks. The starter’s gun sounded, and after 300 meters, to the excitement of the spectators, the home crowd’s favorite was in level first place with two other runners. The atmosphere in the arena now became electric, and as Freeman herself recalls, on the home-stretch she felt like she was lifted off the ground while her rivals all disappeared behind her. Australia’s indigenous sprint star, seconds after, went on to cross the finish line first, and in the subsequent lap of honor, proudly carried both the Australian and the Australian Aboriginal flags.

Charity work

Winning an individual Olympic gold, something that no other indigenous Australian had done, made Cathy Freeman a symbol of opportunity for Australia’s indigenous people and earned her fame and icon status all over Australia. Riding this wave of success, after her retirement from sports, Freeman then used her reputation to call attention to issues related to indigenous Australians, and also launched the Cathy Freeman Foundation. Her foundation, still operating today, is a charity organization that provides extra resources to make camps and sporting programs available to indigenous Australian school children. These extracurricular activities are to serve as motivation to attend school, and ultimately, improve indigenous Australian students’ results, which are below the national average.