Sydney 2000: Crazy about Catherine

Before her legendary race in Sydney, Catherine Freeman was everywhere. In newspapers, on the walls of skyscrapers, adored by a nation who didn’t doubt for a single second that she would triumph in the 400m final, at 8.10 p.m. on the dot, in Sydney on Monday 25 September 2000. With 48 hours to go before she competed, the fever ramped up on the streets of the Olympic city…

Picture by IOC

In Darling Harbour, a very busy traditional meeting place in the heart of Sydney that had become an Olympic venue, Freeman was everywhere. Her figure was painted the full height of a glass tower by the US outfitter that was sponsoring her, and she also appeared on buses, with only star swimmer Ian Thorpe vying with her for space. Her status as a national icon was further strengthened by her appearance as the last torchbearer at the end of the Opening Ceremony, lighting the Olympic cauldron amidst a cascade of fire and water.

Every day, the local tabloids, such as the Daily Telegraph, had a field day mocking her great rival and reigning double Olympic 400m champion, Marie-José Pérec. Its 20 September edition read: “The photo that Pérec doesn’t want to see” – the French champion shot with a telephoto lens during training – above another photo: “What she will see” – the back of Freeman’s shoes!

Catherine Freeman
Picture by IOC

In The Rocks district, the evening was hotting up. The huge Crystal Harmony cruise ship, as big as a building, had been berthed at Circular Quay since the start of the Games. Set up in front of the big white ship were tables and a speaker blasting out techno at full volume. Belinda and Jose stopped dancing for a second to declare: “Catherine is the best. She’s going to win. She’ll beat this girl… what’s her name again?” Belinda had her ticket in her pocket. She would be in the Olympic Stadium on the big day and couldn’t wait to go. A little later, Nathalie, draped in an Australian flag, summed up what she thought of Freeman in three words: “She’s so cool!”

A whole nation behind her

Finlay, of Finnish descent, had no time for symbolism: “She’s Australian, that’s all. She’s like us.” On 20 September, Phil and Troy celebrated the victory of Australian archer Simon Fairweather. Since the start of the Games, they had been enjoying the exploits of their country’s swimmers. “What we are interested in are the medals won by Australia. We don’t have very good runners, so athletics doesn’t interest us that much. In fact, we’ve got one chance, and believe me, we’ll be there to support Catherine Freeman.”

In front of the Circular Quay metro station, two giant screens were erected by a well-known Japanese electronics manufacturer, a Games sponsor. Crowds gathered there every evening, mainly to delight in the achievements of the Australian swimmers. Ben and Matthew, two police officers, were there to provide security. “The whole of Australia supports Catherine,” confirmed Ben. “On the night of the final, everyone will be watching on TV. There’ll be no one on the streets apart from the people who come here, and there’ll be a great atmosphere!” For his part, Matthew was very surprised to see Catherine Freeman light the Olympic cauldron, the high point of the Opening Ceremony. “I was well stoked!”

Freeman was no longer her own person. She belonged to everyone in Sydney, to a whole continent. No one would beat her in the final of her event. Was everyone sure about that? Amidst all these supporters decked in the local colours (either the Australian flag, with the British Union flag in the corner and six white stars on a blue background, or yellow and green) walked an alien dressed in blue, white and red. Frenchman Pierre had come to watch the Games for fun. “Well if Freeman doesn’t win, it will be a slap in the face for them!” he said, adding: “The funniest thing would be if neither Pérec nor Freeman win.” Heaven forbid…

“So intense and so honest!”

But not everything turned out exactly as the supporters had expected. The first heats on 22 September took place without Marie-José Pérec, who had hurriedly left Sydney less than 48 hours earlier. Never one to be unsettled, the Australian reigning two-time world champion (1997 and 1999) easily won her race in 51.63. The following day in the second round, to the cheers of the crowd who only had eyes for her, and who packed out the stands in the Homebush Bay Olympic Stadium each day, Freeman dominated her race with a time of 50.31. She then stepped up the pace in the semi-final on 24 September, crossing the finish line first in 50.01, running the best time at that stage of the competition.

Catherine Freeman
Picture by IOC

What follows next is the stuff of Olympic Games legend. On 25 September, her last lap of the track in the final was accompanied by 112,000 voices coming together in a deafening din, combined with the incessant crackles of camera flashes. At one with her people, dressed in a one-piece body suit, topped with a tight-fitting green and white hood, Freeman won in a time of 49.11 to the intense roar of the crowd, then seemed to collapse on the track under the weight of the avalanche of emotions coming from the stands. She gave Australia its 100th Olympic medal, and symbolised the unity of her country in magnificent fashion.

“The whole story has become larger than who I am,” Freeman said years later. “When those moments occur, it’s like almost watching a magic show. I have tried really hard each day, each year I get older to really respect the way that people relate to that one race in September in 2000. It is so intense and it is so honest,” she said in 2018. It is an understatement to say that, 20 years ago, a whole nation cheered Catherine Freeman on her way to the gold medal!