Women's 400m gold medallist Cathy Freeman (© © Allsport)
Cathy Freeman probably does not watch much of the present trend in television - “reality TV”. In fact, in meeting the Olympic women’s 400 metres champion from Sydney, there’s a sense that she does not much like reality, per se.
Four years on from her finest hour and just less than 50 seconds, Cathy Freeman is still struggling to come to terms with reality. The woman who lit the Olympic cauldron in front of 120,000 in Stadium Australia, then a week later lit up half the world with her gold rush to the 400m title, is still abuzz with excitement.
And two years after retiring from athletics for the third time in her 31-year life, Freeman’s still part of the whirl, unable quite yet to jump off the athletics merry-go-round.
We met in a penthouse restaurant in London where she was accompanied by a PR and a publicist. A couple of days earlier, she had been in Paris, before that, it was Munich and Los Angeles, once more in the company of the Olympic flame, this time as it weaved its way towards Athens.
These days, Freeman leads the life of the former Olympic champion, meeting presidents and royalty, representing various sponsors, charitable causes and organisations, including the London 2012 Olympic bid. “London’s like my second home,“ the Australian explains, “it’s where I was based during the European season, the people here have always been real friendly to me.”
The London bid had organised a special concert in front of Buckingham Palace to coincide with the torch relay passing through the British capital. The severely limited number of tickets had been distributed through a special ballot, which was over-subscribed by more than a million applications. It is, simply, the hottest ticket in town. I ask Freeman if she would be going.
“It sounds cool,” says Freeman, her eyes opening wider than seems possible.
“Let me know if you want tickets,” the PR purrs, “and I’ll make the call.” So it is true when they say you cannot measure the value of an Olympic gold medal. Priceless.
I mention to Freeman that her friend and former training partner, Donna Fraser, the fourth finisher on Freeman’s night of nights four years earlier, is racing well again and due to compete at Gateshead a few days later. Encouraged by the “anything is possible” attitude displayed over the concert tickets, Freeman jumps from her seat with excitement. “Oh, that sounds great, I’d love to go, I’d love to see Donna and all my friends. Can I go?” she pleads to her minders, the vulnerable, child-like Cathy emerging.
“We have to be in Barcelona on Sunday,” she is told this time. Gateshead or Barcelona? No choice, really. Freeman does not seem so sure.
Freeman’s life story has long been portrayed as one of a little Aboriginal girl from the remote Northern Territory town of Mackay who is taken because of her mercury-fast feet, her life moulded and dictated by white men, for the ultimate benefit of white men.
There was a chance that that might come to an end with her track career, that Freeman might drift back to Mackay and obscurity, but her continued profile defies such predictions. “It was all business,” she says now when asked about the theory that her life has not been her own. “I just let them take care of business off the track, and I took care of business on the track.” There is a steel behind the smile.
Freeman now inhabits that nether world between the active competitors and mere mortals, a sort of shadow circuit that sees her rub shoulders with agents, sponsors and TV producers. It is a halfway house that takes in all the main venues on the European athletics tour, without ever actually stepping on to a track. She may have retired from racing and training, but the lifesyle is more difficult to give up.
“Really, I knew I wanted to retire the moment they put the Olympic gold medal around my neck,” she says now. “It had been my life for 17 years, from the age of 10, but I sort of knew, deep inside, that that was it.”
She admits, though, that she still tries to do some training every day, “I just have to do it. I can’t cope otherwise,” although a ski-simulator exercise machine in her Paris hotel has left her hobbling.
Despite the distractions of a post-Games court battle Freeman did manage to drag herself back on to the training track after the Olympics for long enough to help Australia win a relay gold at Manchester’s Commonwealth Games two years ago.
But to all intents and purposes, Freeman’s last race was that night in Sydney, when amid a hailstorm of camera flashes, she managed to fulfil the expectations of the world and fulfil her own athletic destiny, to finish off the script as was required.
Freeman says that the pressures leading into the Games had been building “like a freight train in the distance” ever since Sydney was selected as Olympic hosts in 1993. “I knew it was coming, I’d been watching the train getting closer. And then it was suddenly right in front of me, hurtling at top speed and there was no escape - Whoosh.”
In her recently published autobiography, Freeman recounts what seems very close to panic attacks, both before the opening ceremony, where she was unveiled as the surprise star turn at its climax, and before the 400m final.
Yet it was not Freeman who suffered the ultimate panic attack in Sydney.
Her battle with Marie-Jose Perec in Atlanta in 1996, when the Frenchwoman became the first to retain the Olympic 400m title, and the Australian’s subsequent two world titles at 400m only served to intensify the pressures on Freeman at the Sydney Games.
The pressure really did get to Perec, who raced through Sydney airport’s departures gate faster than she had done on a track for some time. “She’s a nice girl, a great athlete. I’d really like the chance to talk to Marie-Jo, to find out what really happened,” confirmed Freeman.
Even in the absence of her greatest rival, Freeman still had to deliver in Sydney. It was as if she was in a state of shock after the race that night.
Freeman took off her shoes and sat on the track, the hood of her Fastsuit pulled down over her face. “I could feel the crowd around me, all over me,” Freeman explains. “I felt everyone’s emotion.
“I wanted to feel something really comfortable and do something that would make me feel normal, because life for a while had been anything but normal. So I just wanted to sit down there and do what I would be doing in the company of friends.”
In common with many of the finest competitors, Freeman says that she is able to blinker herself, block out the outside world at times of great anxiety. She used this to her advantage in order to win the Olympic gold, yet she admits now to having limited recollections of the race or the celebrations in the evening afterwards. The greatest moment of her life, and Freeman can scarcely remember it.
I ask her whether she thinks the 400m is an event which is too demanding, which takes too high a toll: Perec was effectively retired by the age of 29, Freeman at 27, Katharine Merry, Britain’s bronze medallist four years ago when 26, has barely been able to race since.
“No,” Freeman says, hardly pausing to consider the evidence. “I was world-class at 400 for 10 years. It all depends on how hard you work.
“I still don’t think I ever raced as fast as I could. I only ever raced fast if someone was there to really race against, like at Atlanta. That’s why I was disappointed with my time in Sydney. I would have raced faster if Marie-Jo had been there.”
And asked what the future holds, she shrugs and giggles. She admits she has not really considered that yet. In Olympic year, she does not need to.
“The reason I achieved so much is that running was my escape from a chaotic personal life,” Freeman says. “Athletics was my refuge, something I could lose myself in. I was always happiest on the track.”
For now, Cathy Freeman does not have to worry about going back to reality.
Steven Downes for the IAAF