SYDNEY-This was more than a track meet. More than an Olympics.
Cathy Freeman's gold medal in the 400 meters Monday night was human drama, written large across the landscape of a continent.
The first person of Aboriginal descent to win a gold medal for Australia, Freeman stood up to months of hype and pressure leading up to the race.
Running before more than 112,524 screaming fans she brought home Australia's first track field gold medal since 1988.
In the other premiere race of the night, American Michael Johnson became the first man to repeat as Olympic 400-meter champion, but his glory was overshadowed by Freeman's thrilling race
"I knew there would be the pressure," said Freeman. "It's for my people, my country. I am very relieved it's over. This is the night. I never underestimate anybody. There has been a lot of pressure, especially because it's my home country. But I'm proud of them."
From the moment she walked on the field to warm up, Freeman received a thunderous ovation. She wore a dazzling silver and green head-to-toe body suit, in part because of the cool night air.
Running easily out of the blocks she let Jamaica's Lorraine Graham take the lead, which Graham maintained until the last 180 meters. Then as she ran under the cauldron she lit to start the Sydney Olympics Freeman made her move.
She kicked hard off the turn and took the lead down the straightaway. She was pulling away from the field at the end, finishing in 49.11, the fastest time in the world this year. Freeman hasn't lost in 43 starts, since she won the silver medal in Atlanta.
Graham took the silver medal with a time of 49.58 and Katharine Merry of Great Britain won bronze with 49.72.
After carrying the hopes and expectations of her country on her shoulders, Freeman finally slumped to the ground and sat there, her energy spent, for several minutes.
Donna Fraser, the fourth-place finisher, was the first person to come congratulate Freeman.
"I just said to her, 'Well done, you did it. Go and do a lap of honor. You deserve it," said Fraser, an Australian who trains with Freeman.
"She couldn't say anything to me she was so overwhelmed. I don't think she knew whe3re she was. I think it was a relief more than anything."
Then she went to the stands to get a flag that combines the Australian and Aboriginal flags and took a victory lap around the track.
It was an emotional night, one that brought a lump in the throat to many who saw the race.
"It's a dream I've had since a little girl, that's why I'm emotional," said Freeman. "I really enjoyed myself.
"Some people may think that there's no hope, but there's plenty of opportunities for everyone."
For Johnson it was all business, plain and simple. It was nothing like Atlanta in 1996 when he won the 400 meters and 200 meters, something no one had ever done before. Start to finish, he was going to win this thing. He was focused.
He led from start to finish, never seriously challenged. His time was 43.84. Teammate Alvin Harrison took the silver with a time of 44.40 while Gregory Haughton of Jamaica ran a 44.70 for bronze.
Afterwards Johnson said he had achieved all he had hoped to.
"This is my last major competition," said Johnson. "I was here to defend my last individual race in the Olympic Games. My Olympic career has been great. I'm very proud."
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