SYDNEY - In 49.11 seconds, Cathy Freeman united the world and narrowed a cultural chasm with her gold medal performance in the 400-meter race Monday night.
Before a crowd of 112,000 that rose to its feet when she took the track, the 27-year-old Australian sweetheart met the expectations her country and international media had for months been heaping on her.
For less than a minute, the endless ringing of thousands of mobile phones halted as deafening cheers erupted from Olympic Stadium, the spot where Freeman lit the cauldron the week before. Even stadium breezeways, normally clear for safety reasons, were packed with Olympic staff and refreshment vendors hoping to catch a glimpse of the race.
The first Aboriginal to represent Australia at an Olympic Games, Freeman has found herself thrust in a political battle older than her. The Aboriginal people, who have endured decades of harsh segregation and social injustices, only recently have seen efforts by their country to make amends. In the months leading up to the games, it seemed all of Australia pinned their hopes of reconciling with the Aborigines on Freeman's racing suit.
"There was so much pressure on her, that I just felt sorry for her," said Melbourne resident Kylie Fielding. She sneaked her young daughter onto a landing in the stadium to watch the wildly publicized race. "But this is great for the world, and she did it. It was simply thrilling."
As the fans silenced themselves so runners could hear the starting gun fire, Fielding whispered in her little girl's ear. "This is something you'll always remember," she said.
Dressed in a yellow and green racing suit and hood, Freeman left her competitors scrambling to catch her in a stadium awash in flash bulbs and national flags. Spectators from every country appeared to scream for Freeman, who'd been named a favorite for the gold long before the Olympic opening ceremonies.
"It was like it was all just for Cathy," said Diane Fazio, of Sydney. "I don't think I have ever been in a crowd that emotional over just one race." Fazio's own husband, a former Olympic rowing competitor, said the enthusiasm for Freeman's race couldn't be compared to anything in sporting history. The couple bought their tickets to the Monday night event 18 months ago; knowing the race would be popular. Tickets to the race sold on the streets for hundreds of dollars over face value in the days leading up to the race, and tourists could be heard boasting about their seats to the highly-publicized event.
Just an hour before Freeman's race, spectators were still combing Olympic crowds in search of a ticket.
"We just felt so passionate about it, about trying to create a unity here," Fazio said. "It wasn't just like she was doing it for herself, she was out there doing it for all of us."
Spectators simply lost control as Freeman pulled past the other runners in the last turn of the race, many shedding tears as she streaked to the finish line.
"She's Australia's one true sports hero," said 15-year-old David Klatt, a resident of Sydney but a native Georgian. "There's nothing that could compare to what we just saw."
Klatt's mother, Carol, said she's never witnessed a more emotional race in her 25 years of working with Olympic Games. "I'm just so glad to see her fulfill their [Australia's] dreams," she said. "I was feeling the pressure on her just sitting in the stadium. It was an unmistakable energy."
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