SYDNEY A little more than a week ago, she lit a flame. Last night, Cathy Freeman warmed a country.
Australia's transcendent track mistress ran the race she and all of Australia have waited for Monday, taking steps and making strides at the same time.
She earned the gold medal that had avoided her four years ago. She won the 400-meter run just as people had been saying she would for nearly three years. And she gave Australia its first track medal of these Games, its first running gold in four Olympics.
But here, this was being spun as more than sport. Freeman's race, to optimistic locals, was going to be a social and cultural occasion, 400 meaningful meters to close the gap between white Australia and the country's indigenous people.
Freeman is an Aboriginy, a race that has suffered worse and more recent persecution than America's native people. And it was being said that, when the nation stood together to cheer her Monday night, it would be united, made one through sport and shared victory. Barriers would come down as assuredly as Freeman's feet.
That's what they were saying.
I don't know if a country can really change like that in 49 seconds, but they seem to think so here.
What is conveivable, though, is that all of Australia did cheer as one Monday. There has been a common pulse throughout the country since the Olympics started and last night it beat a heavy harmony.
The ticket to Olympic Stadium Monday was the hardest to get at these Games so far, scalpers having little success obtaining any of the 110,000 sold. A half-hour before the race, people had already started gathering on sidewalks in front of electronic stores to watch on television sets inside the windows, the way they only do in movies. And Freemania charged Sydney's designated Olympic zones, as she rocked The Rocks and was the darling of Darling Harbour.
How big was she?
"Cathy, Cathy, Cathy,'' even briefly replaced the new local pledge of allegiance, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.''
The largest crowd was at Darling Harbour, which has become the communal home of these Olympics, the place where those without tickets or just with a mischievous streak have been coming to watch the Games on a giant television screen. It has become outdoor theater, both for viewing and for plot purposes.
And Monday roughly 50,000 people were there to cheer for Freeman and Australia, which for one lap were the same.
Some had come from work, still in their suits and sat in the grass with families making a night out. Young men with spiked hair and piercings stood beside old women with permanents, leather next to lace.
They had come from all over Sydney to come together. And, it was suggested, to give the loudest cheer ever for an indiginous Australian, to embrace an outspoken advocate of the country's reconcilliation effort that she fueled again last night, perhaps unlike anything before. The reaction was as authentic as that smile of hers that made the stadium lights seem dull.
Maybe Freeman is so popular because she is not only a spokesperson, but a symbol and because she doesn't just represent Aboriginal perseverance, she understands it.
Her maternal grandfather, an aboriginal activist, was among the thousands of native people rounded up and taken to a penal settlement for "troublesome Aborigines'' in the '50s. She has living relatives who remember a time in Australia when an Aboriginal could be jailed for speaking to a white person.
Monday, when she was not only the country's most famous indiginous person but also its favorite daughter, doesn't make any of that go away. But the unchecked adoration she receives now starts to repay it.
Even in her moment, her exquisite timing carried off the track, her medal coincidentally being Australia's 100th ever in the Olympics and 42nd of these Games to exceed their total from Atlanta. And she continued making statements with actions that continued to symbolize unity.
She stepped to the line wearing a body suit in Australia's green and gold and shoes of red, yellow and black - Aboriginal colors. And when she won the race, she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on a dizzying lap of honor and history. It was hard to tell who had won greatest from the synergy, whether it was her, her heritage or Australia whose new gold shined brightest.
"She's made the country stand as one and be proud, yell and scream and say we're Australian and we love it,'' said an announcer on Australia's Seven, the network carrying the games locally. "It seems the whole of Australia has a smile on its face.''
And a closeness in its heart.
Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-052 after Oct. 8.
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