September 26, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: It seemed all of Australia stopped on Monday to watch Cathy Freeman compete in the women's 400-meter race. In Sydney, and in her hometown MacKay, hundreds gathered before big screen televisions to cheer the indigenous Australian to gold. The slight 27-year-old runner who lit the flame at the Olympic cauldron ten days ago became the first aborigine to win an individual Olympic gold medal; all this after she withstood pressure from some aborigines to boycott the games altogether.
SPORTSCASTER: And they're under way to a giant roar. And Cathy Freeman is out. Cathy Freeman is in lane six.
RAY SUAREZ: It took Freeman 49.11 seconds to fulfill the hopes of her people and her nation.
SPORTSCASTER: Cathy Freeman has a very fluid style she's run from almost every single lane on the track, and the pressure is on her. But Lorraine Graham is moving into position.
SPORTSCASTER: Lorraine Graham in the black is making up her stagger, but Freeman picks it up a notch.
RAY SUAREZ: She sprinted past her rivals to victory in the final 50 meters of the race before a stadium-capacity crowd of more than 110,000.
SPORTSCASTER: Katharine Mary from great Britain is there. Cathy freemen goes to the lead. Here they come to the line. Cathy Freeman by a good margin for Australia!
RAY SUAREZ: Some Australians called it a defining moment in their country for reconciliation; a term covering a number of aboriginal issues, and a highly charged political debate in Australia. Many aborigines want a formal apology for past government injustices, including land seizures and government-enforced assimilation.
MAN: It means another win for aborigines.
WOMAN: Well, Cathy's just put us right out there with gold and with our flag, so you know, she's put aboriginal Australia right in the spotlight, and she's also helped drag this country right out into the international arena.
RAY SUAREZ: She donned an Australian and aboriginal flag tied together for her victory lap. Freeman's accomplishment made front page news in Australia and around the world. She spoke to the world press corps Tuesday.
CATHY FREEMAN: I mean, reconciliation is an issue that's really quite evident these days, and so it's quite fitting that I've won an Olympic gold medal now, and it's quite fitting that reconciliation is a topic right now. It's a wonderful, wonderful time in my life at the moment, as well as my family and my friends. And anybody who has helped me in my career. And I don't know if it gets any better than this.
RAY SUAREZ: She's gotten repeated questions about whether she'll be running in Athens in 2004, or whether she might next go into politics. Freeman said she's only looking ahead as far as her next race, the 200 meters on Wednesday.
For a better understanding of the issues surrounding Australia's aborigines, we turn to Diane Bell, a professor of anthropology and chair of the women's studies program at George Washington University. She has written several books on aboriginal women, including "Daughters of the Dreaming" and "Law, the Old and the New: Aboriginal Women in Central Australia Speak out." Well, Australia's had a pretty good politics. Why was this particular event one that set the country on its ear?
DIANE BELL: Well, it comes at a really interesting moment in Australian history, and I think Cathy Freeman lighting the flame and winning gold allows us to imagine ourselves more richly at a very critical moment in our relationship with our indigenous population.
RAY SUAREZ: I guess to understand why her use of the word reconciliation carries so much electric charge on it, we have to understand why Australians need to be reconciled to each other. Tell us about the aboriginal people.
DIANE BELL: Oh, dear me. Well, it's about 2.3% of the population of 19 million -- people living in different situations across the country but suffering grievances that come from the moment of colonization and the way in which people have been put outside the broader society. And 1967 is the constitutional referendum in Australia, which includes aboriginal people in a census and makes them subject to commonwealth legislation. Up until that point they were really outside the new nation that had been created.
RAY SUAREZ: And these are people who have not done well in the modern Australia in many respects?
DIANE BELL: Very different. The aboriginal people have enormous accomplishment in the professions. There are people with whom I have done field work in Central Australia who are accomplished artists and people in their own communities who are leaders in their own communities. So it's a vast variation across the country.
RAY SUAREZ: And when someone like Cathy Freeman steps up, can she avoid becoming part of this conversation about Australian history, about the status of aboriginal people? Can she just say, "oh, I'm just a runner"?
DIANE BELL: No. I think she encapsulates it. I think she provides a wonderful role model for young aboriginal children. And I think she also provides hope for Australians, because she encapsulates - this wonderful young woman, a brilliant runner, a charming person who can both hold up the aboriginal flag and cause quite a stir in 1994 in the games in Canada -- but also be a proud Australian.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit about that stir, by flying the aboriginal flag. There's a lot of comment at home. This time around there was a lot of comment about whether she would boycott the games. She's being pushed into roles and being used as a lightning rod for people having these conversations?
DIANE BELL: Yes. I think she makes it possible to have the conversation. The flag itself, the symbol of the flag, black for the people, yellow for the sun, red for the land -- a very dramatic statement for people to see that flag. But you'll notice her running shoes are in the aboriginal colors. She's wearing her colors all the time, which I think is a nice little subversive way of making the point.
RAY SUAREZ: When there are populations inside a country that are at odds with the mainstream society, that have an historic grievance, is there a tendency for people to latch on to models that they find comforting and reassuring while not allowing their success to spill over onto the rest of the people?
DIANE BELL: I think that's inevitable, but I think the way in which we heard Cathy Freeman speaking on that clip, she's casting her victory in the context of reconciliation. So she's immediately evoking things like the stolen generations, which are part of the shame with which Australians who feel their history is important are living at the moment. I think she makes it unavoidable that certain things stay on the agenda.
RAY SUAREZ: Stolen generations, that term means?
DIANE BELL: The stolen generations refers to aboriginal children who were forcefully removed from their family under government policies, different sorts of policies from the 19th century through until quite recently under the policy of assimilation which was formally became policy in the 1940's through to the 1960's, 70'S. So the report is called bringing them home, which was done by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1997. It was published. It chronicles the histories of the children taken from their families. The estimate runs between one& -pin three to one in ten children taken from their families. That's a dramatic statistic.
RAY SUAREZ: And has there been a lot of movement inside the country? Has the country sort of explained this past to itself and started to, if not make amends, at least be more open about what really happened?
DIANE BELL: I think there's been a move to recast our history, to look the other side of the frontier. I think there's been an honoring of aboriginal languages, not as much as I would like the see, but certainly an honoring of that difference. I think there's been a willingness to say there were inhabitants in this land before we arrived here and our high court, which is equal to your Supreme Court, found in 1992 that the aboriginal populations of Australia had rights, common rights law... common law rights which are good against any other rights. So there's been a recognition by our courts that aboriginal people were the original owners of the land. That's what reconciliation seeks to sort out, that taint of our history -- because can we be a really democratic nation if we come out of this floored understanding of the origins of a nation?
RAY SUAREZ: Can this excitement really accomplish something tangible when a national paper has "our Cathy" on the front page? Just the fact that she can be all of ours -- is that a big deal?
DIANE BELL: I think being able to embrace somebody as wonderful and useful and grateful as Cathy in the context where she is insisting that we look at this in the context of reconciliation, I think that is productive, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: And this talk about...she's been asked several times in the past week about going into politics and has even conceded that there may be some role for her in the public realm.
DIANE BELL: Well, I think she's got a role in the public realm already. As I said, she's a wonderful role model. And she's a wonderful model for young women, too.
RAY SUAREZ: But can you see it becoming something more significant over time when she hangs up the running shoes, as a public figure?
DIANE BELL: Not the flag?
RAY SUAREZ: Not the flag.
DIANE BELL: I think she could be a very powerful voice in the political domain, yes. But she's a very shy person.
RAY SUAREZ: Diane Bell, thanks a lot.
DIANE BELL: It's been a pleasure.