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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 20:03 GMT 21:03 UK
Dream symbol for a new Australia
Cathy Freeman
Freeman was chosen to light the Olympic flame
The so-called 'Friendly games' opened with a gesture of Australian national reconciliation when the country's star athlete, Cathy Freeman, was chosen to light the Olympic flame.

The 27-year-old national superstar is not only a favourite to win the 400 metres, she is also of Aboriginal descent - and a political figure who is outspoken in her defence of the rights of Australia's indigenous people.

The choice of her as the athlete to star at the climactic moment of the opening ceremony may be dismissed by critics as gesture politics. But it nevertheless may also be seen as carrying a resonance that goes beyond cynicism.

Freeman is a potent symbol of the way in which Australia would like to be perceived by the world - an open, multi-cultural and tolerant society - but also of the problems for which many, including Freeman, have criticised it in the past.

Cathy Freeman
Freeman sports the Aboriginal flag

For many Aborigines, the Games represent an opportunity to expose their cause to the world at large.

It could be argued that the organising committee could hardly avoid celebrating Aboriginal culture. And it did so in a 'Deep Sea Dreaming' sequence in which Aboriginal dancers conjured a giant Wandjina, a spirit symbolising the unity of the indigenous people.

But in doing so, and choosing Freeman to light the flame, it sent an important signal that the country cannot hide from its past.

Fearless campaigner

Six years ago, Freeman was rebuked by officials when she won the 400m at the Commonwealth games in Canada and took a victory lap carrying the aboriginal flag.

That will not be a problem this year - the Australian Olympic Committee has said it will not punish athletes who celebrate with that flag.

That turnaround is no doubt due in no small part to Freeman, who has campaigned fearlessly in defence of the Aborigines.

There have been calls for an Aboriginal boycott of the Sydney Games, something which Freeman found herself under intense pressure to join - she only decided to run after the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal leaders said they supported her.

Aboriginal protest
Aboriginal protests threatened the Games

And as recently as July, she accused Australian leaders of insensitivity for refusing to apologise for government policies that forced the removal of 100,000 Aboriginal children from their homes from 1910 until the 1970s.

In that context, Freeman's march to the Olympic cauldron was a symbol of Australia's efforts to heal the wounds over the treatment of the Aborigines.

She has come to personify that struggle, and as she jogged up the steps to light the flame, she received a roar that suggested she might well have been the people's choice.

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15 Sep 00 |  Olympics2000
Spectacular start for Sydney Games
14 Sep 00 |  Olympics2000
Sydney witnesses torch arrival
09 Aug 00 |  Athletics-Track
A legend in the making
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