Cathy Freeman wins the 400m (and more) at Sydney 2000
Sportsmen and women are often said to carry the hopes of nation with them. It’s often just media hyperbole – but if it were ever true, it’s true of Cathy Freeman in the Sydney 2000 Olympics, her home Olympics.
Relations between Aborigines and those descended from British (or other) settlers in Australia have been strained ever since colonisation in 1780. For much of this period up until the late 20th century, the country operated an oppressive separatism, based on the racial distinction. Indeed, the term ‘aborigine’ did not exist until after settlers moved in as, until then, there was any ‘newbies’ to distinguish them as ‘natives’. According to historians Loretta De Plevitz and Larry Croft, “[aborigines] were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.” Right up until a landmark referendum in 1967, called by then Prime Minister Harold Holt and which passed with 90% approval, the vast majority of Aborigines had no real legal or electoral representation, with forced removals a regular occurrence. Matters improved for aborigines after, with many achieving noteworthy positions in politics and sport. But it was not until 1999 that an official apology was released, and associated action taken, by the Australian Government – a Motion of Reconciliation drafted by then Prime Minister John Howard and Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway, branding the treatment of Indigenous Australians (as is becoming common, more PC phrasing) “the most blemished chapter in our national history”.
It was in this context that the stunning 400m victory from Cathy Freeman, a woman of Aborigine heritage and the country’s primary track icon, and her celebrations afterwards – with Aborigine and Australian flags – acted as vindication of the political changes and Aborigines’ long struggle for civic rights and representation. (Even if her green and silver, hooded all-body suit get-up, kind of resembling a futuristic space bunny, did seem a little ill-fitting to represent a group typically so in thrall to tradition. Maybe, paradoxically, that was the point.) And it was what made her lighting of the Olympic Cauldron a beacon for a (finally?) progressive, equal Australia.
Glorious failure – Derek Redmond and Eric Moussambani
As much as we like to think of it as fluffy and inclusive, the Olympics is an elitist event, make no bones about it – a stage for those gifted athletes who have honed their talents with relentless, brutal training. Further, an event which, really, only recognise its top three exponents at any given time (some athletes would argue only one). The draconian separatism of podium and non-podium makes no concession to match fitness, sportsmanship, morality, or even endeavour in and of itself. Here, fourth place in the world – an exalted achievement in any other walk of life – is only thought of in relation to the medal winners; a so-close-yet-so-far, gallant loser or so-close-yet-so-far. As us Brits know all too well (Dean Macey, Paula Radcliffe in the 10,000 in Sydney 2000 etc etc) – at least until Beijing’s impressive showing. (Or maybe that’s just my old man’s well-worn fandom coming through). Gold will win you global glory, multimillion-pound sportswear contracts, probably even a film; Silver, some national TV punditry; Bronze, at least a cereal contract; 5th place is positively obscurity.
That said, the Olympics is not just some grotesque allegory for the corporate world. Far from it. Of course, it is inherently cutthroat for the athletes, but the end (for at least, 99% I’d venture) is a glorious vindication of all their hard-earned work, played out through a medium which is intrinsically meritocratic and where the only losers are those who have to be prepared for it. Everyone else is enthralled, even inspired by the skill and determination of the Herculean feats. And all this is underpinned (or at least should be) by, if not friendship, deep respect for the endeavour of the competitors and consequent sportsmanship, borne out of a sense that, though everyone wants to win, there is noble pursuit of something greater at stake – a triumph of the human spirit.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this joint pick: Derek Redmond and Eric the Eel. Derek Redmond was in blistering form going into the final of the 400m Final at the Barcelona 1992 Games. He started strongly, but halfway down the back straight said he heard a shot from the crowd, which milliseconds later he realised was his hamstring, tragically, going. As all his competitors (rightly) sprinted on, Redmond knelt down in agony. But then – undeterred – heroically hobbled on round the bend, one armed on the stricken leg and his faced etched with pain. Coming onto the home straight – with all the other athletes long finished – his dad ran on, brushing aside the protesting official to give his son the physical and emotional support to limp over the line…to the standing ovation of nearly all the crowd. Redmond’s disqualification paled into insignificance; if anything a validation of this incredible act.
Equitorial Guinea is not exactly renowned for being a powerhouse in Olympic swimming. As such, no one paid Eric Moussambani, then 22, much attention when he lined up in a preliminary heat of the 100m Freestyle at Athens 2004, clad in just swimming trunks (aerodynamic swimsuits evidently hadn’t reached the third world), alongside Niger’s Karim Bare and Tajikistan’s Farkhod Oripov. However, things got a lot more interesting when the other two false-started, leaving Eric puzzled as to the next course of action – which was, of course, to run it with just him. He started off reasonably, with a competent dive and inauspicious start, but it soon transpired that he was rubbish, at least by the technical standards of competitive swimming – moving limbs in a quick and co-ordinated manner in water. He clocked in with a time of 1:52.72 – more than twice standard Olympic time, and probably slower than you or I could manage; certainly slower than Ian Thorpe did twice the distance. Everyone, however, loves a trier. And all those in the stadium, after initial laughs, warmed to this plucky lad, raising the roof to get him home in the final length (the BBC commentator was questioning whether he could make it) . Pundits, like sponsors cashing in on this incredible story, labelled him ‘Eric the Eel’, and revealed he had only been swimming about 8 months and that there was no Olympic-sized swimming pool in his native Equitorial Guinea, which meant often braved the shark-ridden Atlantic Ocean to train – transforming him from plucky (but rubbish) underdog to a kind of strange embodiment of the Olympic spirit.
(As a postscript, Eric toured Europe flushed with glory and a relatively lucrative Speedo contract, and set his sights on proving, at Athens 2004, that he was more than just a novelty act. Sadly, however, documentation suspiciously ‘lost’ by the country’s despotic government prevented him from earning a visa to either train at the University of Wisconsin or compete in Athens. He has, though, achieved a respectable 100m time of 57 seconds (very respectable considering his plight), and is now the national swimming coach of Equitorial Guinea. So kind of a happy ending.)
Both may not have returned home with a medal – but, arguably, with far more.