Reconciliation as a 400m Event

I was born with a good body for running.

                                                                                          Cathy Freeman


Sporting events are integral to a city’s vibrancy and cultural life and few cities  conflate their identity more with sport than Melbourne. The mega-sporting events – such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup – are moments for articulating transformations in a city’s or country’s historical trajectory. Emerging cities host mega events to assert their credentials and re-birth: the Tokyo, Athens, Rio and Beijing Olympics are some examples.  But, perhaps this isn’t always the case. The choice of Sydney as the host for the Olympics in 2000, was related to its perception as Australia being a positive example of the good life, and of Reconciliation (Hanna 1999). The athletic star of the Games was Cathy Freeman. But, like the Commonwealth/Stolenwealth Games, the Olympic Games presented a range of opportunities for Indigenous participation and cultural representation.


Hanna charts the pre-2000 Olympic trajectory in which there was a strong sense of positivity regarding the possibility of a relaxed and comfortable Reconciliation. Paul Keating had made his Redfern Speech in which he stated and expanded upon crimes committed in the founding of the nation. He was listened to and appreciated by his Redfern audience. This was, apparently, a nation passing through necessary growing pains. A nation in which human rights and Indigenous rights were increasingly acknowledged, confronted and reconciled. Athletes and sportsmen and women were a vital part of this discourse. Cathy Freeman’s use of the flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games being a signature moment. “My first public acknowledgement of my pride in being Indigenous [was while] celebrating my 400m gold medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.”  Sydney was preferred to Beijing (Australia v China), in part, by virtue of its cultural, political climate. The choice of Sydney was a means to strategically enhance the Olympic ethos of ‘reconciliation’ – in which diverse nations are brought together through sport (Hanna, pp.20-35).


Gary Ella, as Senior Manager of Aboriginal Affairs within the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, saw the Games as an opportunity for Indigenous professionals beyond the fields of the sports and arts. “[we have to explode the myth that Aboriginal people are only good at sport, dance and music] We are going to have people working on construction…running the tourist agencies…in marketing. We want to demonstrate that we have people with the technology to work in the broadcasting of the Games and we have people with the technical skills” (Ella in Hanna, pp.57-58). The lack of Indigenous presence with the Australian Football League beyond the playing field has resulted in the formation and success of the Marngrook Footy Show. Despite the on-field success of many Indigenous players, very few have become senior coaches. Rhoda Roberts, artistic director of the Festival of Dreaming, reflects Ella’s statements by asserting the ongoing relevance of Indigenous culture: “Indigenous Australians embrace many opportunities […] our roots lie in age-old customs, religion, stories, song and dance, but are relevant and adapted for today’s times, and by our involvement in such national events we contribute to the wealth of Australia’s cultural identity and heritage” (Roberts in Hanna, p.13).




I was living in Medan, a city in North Sumatra, teaching English. It was 2000 and without regular Internet use, I was removed from the Sydney Olympics hype. Now and then I’d send group emails to friends and family providing updates on what was going on where I was: mainly, eating durian, going for long-swims in a rarely used 50m pool and going hiking in the nearby hills. A friend wrote back and wrote with a degree of cynicism towards the positive vibes of the Olympics – especially framed around Reconciliation. ‘And people think that by Cathy Freeman winning the 400m, it means that we’ll achieve Reconciliation.’ I presumed that if I were at ‘home’; I would have been well-and-truly caught up in the hype and feel good factor.  Eighteen years later, the goalposts have shifted: ‘Reconciliation’ for many is hardly the main game, but instead, a Treaty (Treaties?). Indigenous performance was a primary part of the recent Commonwealth/Stolenwealth Games opening ceremony. The Richmond Football Club have recorded an Acknowledgement of Country to be played before their home games.


While in the Baillieu Library recently at the University of Melbourne, I found Freeman’s memoirs somewhat by accident: in amongst scholarly texts on sport. I took it from the shelf on the premise that to ignore her own narrative on her life would be somewhat disrespectful. I may as well read it. A figure who has had so much meaning applied and invested in her running; probably deserves to have a free reign at stating who she is, without any kind of an intermediary. Born to Run, published by Puffin and targeted towards younger readers, presents Freeman’s uncomplicated reading of her own life. The sentences are crafted as if lifted straight out from Strunk and White’s classic style guide. I read it while hearing Freeman’s voice in my mind – feeling that she was smiling while talking/writing. I don’t think Freeman’s life has been easy; I rather feel she chooses to always see it positively. The book includes an appendix of her 10 Hot Tips (for living). In schoolyards and classrooms so often filled with bullying, her maxims such as ‘realise there is always somebody else in the world who is not coping as well as you are’ and ‘be kind and well-mannered to others’ are general, but also well-grounded.


I still agree with my friend who stated her cynicism about the significance of Freeman’s 400m at the Sydney Olympics. I nonetheless, watch the race occasionally on YouTube: in part because I feel she conquers not only the 400m, but, also removes herself from the euphoria of the crowd, the spectators; those who enjoy her success vicariously. Even Bruce McAvaney is relatively calm in his calling: ‘this is a famous victory’. In a poignant conclusion to the book, Freeman dedicates her win to her late-sister, Anne-Marie, who died in her 20s. Elsewhere, she takes pleasure in her success and in her physique: “This is one of my favourite running shots. […] A lot of hard work went into this body.” Freeman doesn’t write of Reconciliation or provide any commentary on the greater significance of her gold in Sydney. Indeed, “life doesn’t stop after you win a gold medal.”


The Books: 


Freeman, Cathy. Born to Run. Sydney: Puffin Books, 2007.

Hanna, Michelle. Reconciliation in Olympism: Indigenous Culture in the Sydney Olympiad. Sydney: Walla Walla Press, 1999.

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