Cathy Freeman at the start of the 400m at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney
It’s a race that is widely regarded as one of the greatest moments not just in athletics but in sporting history overall.
Twenty years on from Cathy Freeman’s 400m triumph at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, cinematic documentary ‘Freeman’ explores the impact that race had on Freeman and Australia as a whole.
Directed by French Australian documentary maker Laurence Billiet, ‘Freeman’ is more than just a recap of the 2000 Olympic final, in much the same way that Freeman’s run itself is far more than just a 49.11-second clocking for 400m. Even for hard-core fans who have watched that race countless times over the past 20 years and understand the significance of Freeman’s achievement, there are insights and reflections within the documentary that haven’t been aired before.
Opening with news clips of the moment when Sydney was announced host of the 2000 Olympics, the documentary counts down the 10 years of Freeman’s career in the lead-up to those Games. The archive footage – from Freeman’s legendary victory at the 1996 Stawell Gift, her double triumph at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and her championship duels with Marie-Josee Perec – will captivate any athletics fan while also acting as a reminder of all of Freeman’s other achievements beyond the Sydney Olympic Park.
The competition footage and accompanying soundbites in the documentary are complemented by shots of Lillian Banks of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, performing sequences that reflect Freeman’s strong sense of spirituality.
The struggles and injustices faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia is a key theme. Among the most engaging clips within the documentary are those of Freeman from her formative years in the sport, speaking with maturity and wisdom beyond her 16 years.
Even at that very early stage of her career, Freeman – a proud Kuku Yalanji woman – had experienced racism first hand. She realised at a young age that Indigenous people were not treated the same as the rest of the Australian population. “But,” she explains, “when I ran, it just changed. It was like everything was different in the world of running for me.”
One of the key moments in the documentary – and, indeed, in Freeman’s career – was the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. After completing an unprecedented 200m-400m double, Freeman celebrated on her lap of honour by carrying the Aboriginal flag. While the vast majority of fans supported and admired the gesture, Freeman faced backlash from Arthur Tunstall, head of Australia’s Commonwealth Games team.
As Freeman’s career progressed, her profile – and her fan base – grew accordingly. By the time of the late 1990s, she was one of the most recognisable figures in Australia. But, as the documentary shows, the pressure on Freeman was already beginning to mount two years out from the Sydney Olympics.
Freeman wasn’t the only athlete dealing with pressure ahead of those Games, though. Filmmaker Billiet, who, at the time of the 2000 Olympics, had just relocated from France and describes herself as possibly the only Perec supporter in Australia, deals sympathetically with the rivalry between the two 400m greats.
The documentary gives an insight into the hounding that Perec faced during that season, which resulted in the 1996 double Olympic champion fleeing Australia just days before the opening round of the 400m at the Sydney Olympics.
Freeman speaks of Perec with great admiration and reveals that, ever since the 1995 World Championships where Perec triumphed and Freeman faded to fourth, the French sprinter was always at the forefront of her mind.
“She was the only person that could ever unlock my own potential,” Freeman says of Perec. “Where I’m from, people weren’t big dreamers. But she (Perec) gave me permission to get really bold with my goals.”
And what bolder goal than winning Olympic gold on home soil in front of a stadium full of 119,000 fans?
The showdown with Perec in Sydney didn’t materialise, of course, but that doesn’t detract from Freeman’s achievement.
The documentary reveals how certain aspects of Freeman’s performance in Sydney – from the eye-catching swift suit she wore, and the race plan she developed with coach Peter Fortune – were meticulously planned months before the Games.
But what’s also fascinating is that Freeman’s lighting of the Olympic cauldron – a moment almost as iconic as her actual Olympic victory – was kept under wraps from those closest to Freeman, her mother and agent included.
The climax of the documentary is Freeman’s recollection of the 2000 Olympic final, by which point the viewer – having relived the journey of Freeman’s career over the preceding 10 years – has an appreciation of the enormous weight of pressure and expectation Freeman carried, not just for the host nation but for what she often refers to as ‘my people’.
“It’s easy to fall into things you've already said, and often athletes have a kind of sport-speak,” Billiet recently told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We did a session where she re-visualised the race, lying down on a couch with her eyes closed. It was incredible. She could see the whole thing, step by step. It was electrifying. You realise what a champion she is.”
The result is a spine-tingling retrospective so powerful that your palms start to feel sweaty just watching and reliving the race in real-time with Freeman’s accompanying commentary. Even 20 years on, Freeman’s recollection of each phase of that race is still so vivid.
Freeman’s insights of how she felt when crossing the line are fascinating. It took a while before she was able to process the enormity and significance of the moment, but even now, two decades later, she says there is a slight tinge of regret that she didn’t run faster.
But, as is pointed out by her coach, fellow athletes and journalists interviewed for the documentary, that race was never about breaking records; it was more about breaking boundaries by winning gold.
At a time of so much division in the world, combined with the eternal debate over whether sports and politics mix, ‘Freeman’ serves as a timely reminder that sport has the power to unite a nation.
“Nothing can prepare you for that kind of pressure or responsibility,” Freeman says of the documentary. “I am 47 years old and I have to start to take that responsibility seriously. By that, I mean give myself permission to share the story in its entirety.”
Exhilarating, uplifting and joyous, this documentary does exactly that.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics
Running time: 58 minutes
Release date: 13 September 2020
Where to watch: ABC iview (Australia only)
Further information on international screenings will be announced in due course at freemanthefilm.com