Aboriginal icon fights for moment free from the weight of history


It is difficult to find a way to explain the importance of Cathy Freeman to Australians in general and to the Sydney Olympics in particular. There is no parallel elsewhere. For Australia, Freeman is more than a beautiful national heroine. She is Aboriginal. She is balm on the wounds of the past, her success gives a rabidly nationalistic nation licence to celebrate in unison. Her smile absolves guilt and promises only the future. Her achievement makes her a poster girl for what Australia can be.

In a country which desperately wants to the Olympics to succeed, talk among dissident Aboriginal activists about disrupting the Games quickly gives rise to anger. There is a feeling, hotly expressed, that the business of recognition and restitution should be kept in the family during the Olympic Games. It can be spoken of later. A win for Cathy Freeman, regardless of what political capital she might extract afterwards, is agreed to be the best, happiest possible outcome for all concerned. All debate on the Aboriginal question this year leads to Cathy Freeman. What is good for Cathy and what is not.

Sydney should be her coronation. Last time out Freeman had set herself the target of the gold medal. Famously, long before the Games, she wrote "48.60 Atlanta" on an airsickness bag. The time wouldn't have been sufficient. The imperious Marie-Jo Perec of France passed Freeman on the final turn to win in 48.25. Freeman came home in 48.63. This time around the enigmatic Perec appears to be in decline. Freeman has the will of a nation blowing her over the line.

Not that the path to Sydney hasn't been strewn with trouble and heartbreak. Freeman has had a turbulent year which has seen her occupy the front pages as often as she appears on the back pages. She married. She intervened publicly in the Australian debate on the future of the monarchy. She ran. She won. She lost. She ended her contract with coach Nick Bideau.

This last act caused a sensation in Australia. If Cathy Freeman doesn't win a gold medal in Sydney this month, one Australian paper has already warned that Bideau should move to New Zealand.

What sort of athlete brings such controversy on herself three months before the Olympics? Freeman is either a whip-smart operator in her own right or is being used by external interests. In May of this year, three and a half years after her personal relationship with Bideau had ended, Freeman chose to terminate their professional relationship. The contract was to run until December 2000.

Freeman announced that Alastair Hamblin would be her new business manager and Royce Sport, who have Nike as a principal client, would be handling her publicity. The new arrangement would be known as Team Freeman.

Having devoted the best part of a decade to skilfully developing Freeman as an athlete and a highly marketable commodity, Bideau and his partner Peter Jess were left with no choice but to sue for breach of contract. The reaction in Australia, where media culture has little left to learn from the rabid tabloid pups of Fleet Street, was vicious. Bideau was variously described as "a weasel faced former lover" and "un-Australian". Every country needed someone to hate, said a Melbourne paper and "Bideau - it's you". The case was described as "a national catastrophe", "madness", and "the sabotaging of a heroine".

Little was left uncovered or unsaid. Details of how the teenage Freeman fell in love with and moved to Melbourne with Bideau (then a journalist and 13 years her senior) were retailed yet again, suggestions were made of an overlap between the end of Freeman's relationship with Bideau and the start of his relationship with Sonia O'Sullivan. Bideau was quoted as saying that Freeman had threatened to retire when she heard of O'Sullivan's pregnancy in 1998.

Freeman won the public relations battle by a blue mile, but risked her own focus at the most important time of her entire career. At one stage she was working without a training partner, was suffering from a nagging groin injury, and had missed her flight to Europe for the start of the season. Then Perec announced a comeback. The details and counter-claims were extraordinary. The court heard that Freeman had made $3.4 million (Aus) since January 1997, a remarkable figure for a non-Olympic champion athlete, and an indication of just how high the stakes were with Freeman possibly about to become a gold medallist on home turf.

Freeman's Nike contract alone is worth $500,000 (Aus) a year. Freeman claimed she didn't know her earnings were that much. Bideau and Jess asked why she didn't check her statements. An extraordinary tangle of business, professional and personal relationships became unglued.

Freeman has been partner of Nike executive Sandy Bodecker for 3 1/2 years and married him a year ago. To the onlooker it seemed highly unlikely that anyone of Bodecker's experience (he had access to all contracts) in the sport's business world would have permitted his partner to be duped for so long. Nevertheless, Bideau and Jess were tossed on the barbecue of tabloid outrage. The case was finally adjourned till after the Olympics. It should make compulsive viewing when it hits the Supreme Court in Victoria again.

The business marked a particularly bad end to a relationship which began when Bideau met Freeman at the Commonwealth Game trials of 1990. She was 16, from Koori. He was 29, from Melbourne. Within two years they were sharing a flat in Melbourne. Famously, Bideau arrived unannounced at her apartment on New Year's Day 1991. By the following April she telephoned him from the Mount Sac relays in California and arranged to return to Melbourne to live with him.

Soon Bideau was organising Freeman's races, training with her, and publicising her feats. Bideau and Jess bought out Freeman's parents, to whom she had signed everything over when she was younger, and created Cathy Freeman Enterprises, the holding company for a vast array of interests and property acquisitions. Her achievements would be considerable. As well as positioning her right at the centre of the Australian national consciousness (it was Jess and Bideau who arranged the Aboriginal flag stunts which would make her famous), she became the flagship athlete of the Melbourne International Track and Field club which has become home to most of Australia's leading Aboriginal athletes.

Freeman's own curriculum vitae began to bulge after the silver in Atlanta. She won the World Championship in Athens and became the first woman to successfully retain the title when she went to Seville last year. Throughout, her influence and profile at home grew and she has been an outspoken figure at home.

In her biography, published three years ago, she spoke frankly for the first time about being sexually abused as a child, about her loneliness growing up and about the plight of the Aboriginal people. Freeman has a sporting past which merges at some points with the painful blood-on-the-wattle history of hatred against Aboriginals. Her paternal grandfather was Frankie "Big Shot" Fisher, a rugby league player of such prowess that he was invited to come to England to play. But the Queensland government refused to allow him to get a passport.

Freeman herself became a national celebrity during the Commonwealth Games in Canada in 1994 when she carried an Aboriginal flag around on a victory lap after her win. She was rebuked by the Australian team management and after her next major victory she carried an Australian and an Aboriginal flag entwined.

Where once the reaction of the Australian public might have been hostile to such political point-making, Freeman had found the sweet spot in time and her personality and confidence made the gesture acceptable to the mainstream.

She has trod a delicate path ever since. Australia isn't ready yet for a full and frank discussion of Aboriginal rights. Aboriginals, of course, recognise that this discussion is well overdue. Freeman's contribution is to further the cause without alienating the white majority. Not easy. Some of the support Freeman built up in her battle with Bideau evaporated almost as soon as she began arguing politics in a subsequent interview and she drew back quickly.

Freeman had commented to an English newspaper that it was time that the Australian government issued an apology to the Aboriginal people concerning the "stolen generation", the matter of thousands of Aboriginal babies who, in a cruelly wrongheaded approach to assimilation, were taken from Aboriginal families to be raised by whites.

Just days earlier, Freeman had walked into another controversy with her new Nike ad which was perhaps a little too clever for its own good. The word "sorry" was repeated several times in the ad before Freeman appeared to say "Can we talk about this later?" Aboriginal groups were outraged. Sorry is a word of extraordinary political sensitivity in Australia. Talking about it later wasn't good enough.

Freeman announced this year that she would try to avoid speaking about politics in Olympic year. "I love my people and where I come from, but I am not at the Olympics to be political. I don't think to myself that I've got to make this next move for the Aboriginal cause," she said.

"I'm going to Sydney to run the fastest 400 metres of my life and to win the gold medal," she says emphatically. "Everything else can wait."

"My worry about Cathy is - win or lose - what happens to her on October 1st," says Bideau.

Everything else can wait? The Cathy Freeman show should keep Australia enthralled right through to Christmas.