For 49.11 secondsBy: Gary D'Amato (Sep 19 2022)
For 49.11 seconds, you had to be there.
by Gary D’Amato in the Milwaukee Sentinel
I know what you saw, but you don’t know what I heard.
Television couldn’t possibly have captured it, not with all the fancy technology known to man. In 23 years of covering sports, I have never heard, have never felt, anything like it.
As Cathy Freeman rounded the final turn in the 400 metres Monday night, 112,524 spectators at Stadium Australia stood as one and raised a mightyvoice to the heavens. Louder and louder they cheered, until the roar became something you could feel, stealing the air from your lungs and reverberating in your head, frying the circuits that process sound waves. Surely, no single gathering of men and women on earth had ever produced a noise this big. Carried on the crest of the din, as if riding the tallest wave in a roiling sea, Freeman pulled away from the pack and cemented her place in Australian history.
She became the first athlete of Aboriginal heritage to win an individual gold medal in the Olympic >Games. “I was totally overwhelmed, because I could feel the crowd all around me, could feel them pushing me,” Freeman would say later. “I felt everybody’s emotions, the happiness, the joy, absorbed in every pore of my body.”
After she crossed the finish line, Freeman sat down on the track for three long minutes, her face blank, her senses overloaded. The race had lasted just 49.11 seconds. She needed time to process the experience. “I had to sit down,” she said, “and try to feel normal again. It was beyond words.”
Some undoubtedly will compare this singular event to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s colour barrier, but that is a misplaced notion. Not all of America was ready to accept blacks in baseball in 1947. But in 2000, seemingly all of Australia is eager to embrace Freeman not only as an Aborigine champion, but as its champion.
When the runners were introduced before the race, hundreds of stadium volunteers spontaneously left their posts and stormed the tunnels and stairways. Perhaps 98% of them were white, and some undoubtedly were descendants of the British settlers who pushed the Aborigines off their own land in the 1800s. Now they were standing on their tiptoes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman they have come to adore.
“All I know is that I’ve made a lot of people happy, from all kinds of backgrounds, who call Australia home,” Freeman said Ten days earlier, she had lighted the Olympic cauldron, a symbolic olive branch that so perfectly fitted the spirit of the Olympic movement. How does a government tell its indigenous people it is sorry for past wrongs? The Olympic flame helped bridge the gap.
“In my simple world, I will wake up in the morning and eat my breakfast and clean my teeth,” Freeman said. “Nothing will change.” But on a cool, clammy night in the land Down Under, something did change. It was a night I will not soon forget. The jet engine roaring in my ears as Freeman sailed down the straightaway. The hairs standing on my neck as she surged into the lead. The powerful surge of emotion I felt as she crossed the finish line.
The tears I shed, for reasons I do not understand. And do not need to.