Aborigine begins torch journey

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000

ULURU, Australia -- Running barefoot over the red, sunbaked soil, Nova Peris-Kneebone raised the Olympic flame beside the ancient rock sacred to her ancestors.

The first Aborigine to win a gold medal started the flame on its cross-continent journey Thursday, a relay of 11,000 runners and 16,740 miles, ending at the cauldron at Stadium Australia on Sept. 15 to start the Sydney Olympics.

''Finally!'' said a relieved Michael Knight, head of the Sydney organizing committee. ''The flame is in Australia, now we're totally responsible.''

The Olympic flame was brought to the massive monolith known as Uluru to honor the indigenous people of Australia, who regard the 70 million-year-old crimson rock as central to their ''Dreamtime'' -- a belief system that intertwines spirituality and traditional law.

Australia's governor-general, Sir William Deane, handed the torch to Kunmanara Uluru, a member of the Aboriginal family regarded as the traditional owners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, where the rock rises over the barren landscape.

''We are all very happy the firestick has come to my father's place and we welcome you to our country,'' he said, passing it to eight other members of his family before it was handed to Peris-Kneebone.

Discarding her shoes in a sign of respect to the traditional owners of Uluru, Peris-Kneebone held the Olympic torch high for all to see.

A strong breeze whipping over the arid landscape twice snuffed out the flame, but it was lighted again by a backup brought from Greece.

As she ran, Peris-Kneebone was joined by her 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, and support vehicles for her one-mile run to the base of Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock.

She handed the torch to indigenous runners who completed a six-mile lap around the base of the monolith, which glowed in the early morning sun.

Two-time Wimbledon tennis champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley was among the Aboriginal torchbearers.

Peris-Kneebone won gold at the Atlanta Olympics as a member of the Australian women's field hockey team before switching to athletics and becoming a world-ranked sprinter. She was voted Young Australian of the Year in 1997.

''You get so many opportunities in sport, but this is a once in a lifetime,'' she said.

Later, in the town of Alice Springs, more than 15,000 people jammed a football field for the first of hundreds of local ceremonies to welcome the torch. The flame's route will take it to within a one-hour drive of 80 percent of Australia's population.

The torch heads east to Queensland state Friday, arriving in the mining town of Mount Isa before continuing its trip to the coast.

Farther along its journey, the flame will be submerged with a scuba diver on the Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast and, in remote Western Australia, it will be carried on camel.

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