The sound of the starter’s pistol cracks the night air, igniting a raucous wave of pent-up expectation from 100,000-plus spectators jammed into the Olympic Stadium.
Clad head-to-toe in a distinctive one-piece costume, Catherine Freeman launches herself from the starting blocks in lane six.
Beaten only once in a final since 1997, she’s the reigning back-to-back 400m world champion and the silver medallist at the last Olympics.
And her most persistent rival over recent years is out, having abandoned her title defence at the 11th hour.
But this determined Indigenous woman has also had to deal with the unbearable burden of favouritism and the relentless scrutiny that comes with that.
A final nagging moment of doubt gives way to a sense of tranquillity and certainty.
“I know how to do this, I can do this in my sleep,” she says, revisiting her thoughts on that Magic Monday 20 years ago. “I can win this, I will win this. Who’s going to stop me? I go, I go and I go.”
‘Like an itch that’s always there’
When Freeman finally pulls up, she unzips the top of her suit and pulls back the hood. Through the corner of her eye, she glances at the stadium video screen now displaying the times.
World record: 47.60, Olympic record: 48:25 and her winning time of 49:11.
As the cheering envelops the stadium, Freeman winces and bites her lip. With a slight shake of the head, she sits down on the track and removes her socks and spikes.
“I looked straight across at the clock and I was disappointed with the time,” she says, recalling an old regret that momentarily hijacked her greatest triumph. “I should have run under 49 and I didn’t. And I knew I had a lot more in me.”
Photo: To this day, not cracking the 48 second mark in her gold medal run still bothers Cathy Freeman. (Supplied: Freeman Documentary/Daniel Boud)
For Freeman, whose competitive instincts were honed over the previous two decades, the time still mattered.
“I’m an Olympic champion, but this feeling of not feeling completely satisfied. It’s like an itch that’s always there.”
While Freeman may have been disappointed with her time, it still ranks as one of the fastest ever recorded in the last half a century.
To understand how impressive that time is, it helps to take a look back at the event’s history.
Data published by World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, shows the women’s gold medal run in Sydney was the 53rd fastest ever recorded.
Of the top 100 fastest runs, 54 were set prior to 1990 — a period of time in athletics tarnished by widespread, state-sponsored doping among Eastern Bloc countries.
Thirty four of those times, including the only sub-48 second runs in the sport’s history, were set by just two women: East Germany’s Marita Koch and Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia.
Since Koch set her world record time of 47:60 at a race meeting at Canberra’s Bruce Stadium in 1985, no-one has come close to her time. Both women have always said they never took part in doping.
If we instead look at the years after 1990, we can see just how fast Freeman was compared to athletes from recent decades.
Only a handful of women have managed to surpass her time set in Sydney.
While Freeman’s gold medal run was her most memorable, her silver medal run in Atlanta in 1996 was her fastest. A half a second faster, in fact.
It was so fast that until last year no-one had managed to beat her time of 48.63 seconds.
Except of course for Marie-José Pérec, the winner of the 1996 Olympic gold and Freeman’s greatest rival.
The Carribean-born French athlete dominated the women’s 400m event for much of the first half of the 1990s.
An enigmatic character, she was once described by a former coach as possessing “a difficult temper … egocentric and often behaves as if she were the centre of the universe”.
But Pérec was also a magnificent runner with two world championships and back-to-back Olympic 400m gold medals, the last one also paired with a gold in the 200m.
“She was the sort of woman who struck fear in the hearts of most athletes,” says Freeman, speaking with reverence. “She was so statuesque and so striking.”
La Gazelle, as she was dubbed by the press, had denied Freeman the gold in Atlanta in 1996, setting a sizzling time of 48:25, the fastest in a decade.
Photo: French 400m runner Marie-José Peréc (right) edges past Cathy Freeman to win the 1996 Olympic gold medal in the women’s 400m final. (Reuters: Action Images)
But she had also brought out the best in Freeman, the nemesis she needed to push her to realise her own greatness.
“I knew that she was the only person who could ever unlock my own potential,” Freeman says. “She gave me permission to get really bold with my goals.”
A month later, Freeman finally got the better of Pérec at an athletic meeting in Brussels.
Pérec was one of the greats, but she was beatable and at last, Freeman had her measure.
From 1996 to 2000, Freeman won 41 out of 42 races she competed in.
Plagued by injuries and a debilitating illness, Pérec barely competed in three years before the Sydney Olympics.
And she only qualified two months before the games began under the guidance of a new coach — the German Wolfgang Meier, husband and coach of 400m world record holder Marita Koch.
Pérec never did compete. Her stay in Sydney was brief, controversial and, for most of the time, a circus.
Photo: French 400m runner Marie-José Peréc arrives in Sydney for the Olympic Games. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Photo: French 400m athlete Marie-José Peréc departs Sydney airport in a taxi. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Photo: French Olympian Marie-José Peréc evades photographers at Sydney airport. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Photographer Brendan Esposito, who now works for the ABC, found himself part of that drama when Pérec tried to make a low-key entrance to the host city just before the start of the games.
He was staking out the airport one morning when he caught sight of her in the distance.
“I’m chasing down the 400 metres Olympic champion and goin’ hell for leather,” he recalls, eventually catching up for long enough to take a few shots before she disappeared into the pre-dawn gloom.
Days later, she packed her bags and left the country after claiming a man had broken in to her hotel room.
“Mademoiselle La Chicken”, read the brutal front page headline in one local newspaper. “Pérec flees before facing Cathy”.
Tripping the flow
Around the time Marita Koch started setting new records, a Canadian teenager was trying to make his own mark as a “very mediocre” 400- and 800-metre runner.
Len Brownlie grew up in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, a prairie city situated on the blustery eastern edge of the Great Plains.
He remembers athletics meetings being as much a contest against the elements as they were a battle between the fittest and fastest.
“Everywhere you went in that city, the wind was always a prevalent factor,” he says on a Zoom call from his office at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “So I developed a pretty healthy respect for wind.”
A degree in science followed, and then a masters. By the time he began his PhD, Brownlie was immersed in the world of kinesiology, the study of the mechanics of body movement.
His thesis, submitted in 1992, was titled “Aerodynamic Characteristics of Sports Apparel” and explored techniques in clothing design that could help downhill skiers, cyclists and runners reduce drag and go faster.
Photo: Canadian researcher Len Brownlie prepares a dummy for wind tunnel testing in the late 1990s. (Suppllied: Len Brownlie)
Out of the blue in 1997, Brownlie received a call from a man called Eddy Harber, a Brit who was working as a functional apparel designer for Nike, the sportswear company that helped ignite the jogging craze in the 1970s.
Harber asked if he thought there was any potential to improve sprint performances by tinkering with a runner’s aerodynamics.
“Hell, yeah,” Brownlie replied and with that, the Nike Swift Suit project was born — the body-hugging, drag-resisting garment that Freeman made famous on that September evening in 2000.
Brownlie says he still cries every time he watches a replay of Freeman winning the 400m.
“Partly it’s I’m just so thrilled for her. And also it was, kind of, the completion of my thesis,” he muses. “To actually see it on someone and working was really special.”
To understand what the Nike team was trying to achieve, you should know a little about fluid dynamic drag.
When an object moves, the surrounding gas molecules in the airflow are disturbed and pass around that object forming what is known as a boundary layer.
The point at which the boundary layer separates from the back of the object determines the drag.
Take the case of a runner. As she runs, high air pressure begins to form in front and low air pressure behind.
The difference between the high and low pressure is what’s called pressure drag — which comprises between 90-95 per cent of the total drag.
Less difference in pressure equals less drag which means less energy spent countering the drag, leaving our athlete with the ability to run faster or run for longer.
The remainder is called frictional drag.
With increasing speed, frictional drag stays relatively constant while pressure drag increases.
So most gains in drag reduction are obtained by tackling the pressure differentials.
It turns out that moving objects with smooth surfaces, like skin for instance, create a bigger pressure difference and a larger low pressure wake area behind the runner.
What Brownlie’s wind tunnel testing revealed is that if you cover a smooth cylinder with the right kind of fabric, at the right speed you can drop that drag by as much as 50 per cent.
That is achieved by a process called “tripping the flow”, deliberately switching an orderly air flow into a turbulent one at a point that delays the boundary layer separation. This reduces the pressure differential and the size of the low pressure wake area.
What the wind tunnel tests showed was that — and this may sound a bit crazy — different parts of the body are moving at different velocities.
A pumping arm moves faster than a torso — as do thighs and shins.
The Swift Suit team realised that to effectively minimise drag, they had to treat an athlete’s body as a sum of its parts rather than as a whole.
And that the only way to “trip the flow” was by tweaking different fabric types with different degrees of roughness in a process of trial and error.
Brownlie recalls the eureka moment. It was late one night and he was alone and “twiddling dials” to test different sleeves of fabric, one after another after another on a cylinder in a wind tunnel.
“I still remember — it was [test] number 23 — and suddenly watching the dials, the drag dropped in half, and I went, ‘Ah-ha! That’s the one!'”
And that became the thigh fabric and No. 24 became the calf material.
After testing some 500 combinations, it came down to these combinations, according to Eddie Harber.
For the upper body, which was rated to be moving at 43.4 km/h in a 400m race, and was the slowest of the body parts, the designers used a dense polyester stretch knit with a high lycra content.
The hands, moving at 64.8 km/h, were covered in a smooth, silver-coloured, polyurethane-coated stretch-knit that was designed to counter frictional drag.
For the thighs, moving at 66.3 km/h, the team used a Swiss ski polyester fabric with small dimples all over it. This was the only fabric that was originally designed to be aerodynamic.
The lower leg, moving at 71.2 km/h, was made using a polyester power mesh, a lightweight stretch woven fabric that is breathable and used for its compression abilities.
In this suit, even the seams had to be engineered and placed so as not to interfere with the aerodynamics.
Harber says the team used a three-step zig-zag stitch to join the fabrics, which enabled them to construct the garment with a flat seam that was less likely to disrupt the aerodynamics.
Then for good measure, the seams were either tucked away at the back or aligned according to how wind flows over the body in a race.
By the time the Australian team and Freeman came on board in January 2000, the science had been settled and what remained to be done was to customise the outfit to suit Freeman’s small frame.
Brownlie doesn’t know for certain what was spent, but he has heard a price tag of about $US1 million per suit, given only a handful were offered to members of the US and Australian Olympic teams.
So did it work? Did the Swift Suit help Freeman minimise her drag, preserve her energy and help her slice through air to victory?
Harber believes it was more than just the aerodynamic boost. He says they called it the “double advantage” — the physical advantage afforded by the technology plus the psychological advantage of having the athlete believe in the science.
‘My body is feeling amazing’
The 400m sprint is the second-oldest event of the ancient Olympics. It was called the diaulos and was introduced in the 14th Olympiad of the Greek games.
While the men’s 400m has always been a part of the modern Olympics, it wasn’t until 1964 when a women’s event over that distance was added — and won in that year by Australian Betty Cuthbert.
Although it’s classed as a sprint, the 400m has its own gruelling physical demands.
While speed is important, endurance is also key — and for good reason, it has sometimes been called the “killer event”.
In preparing for the 400m, athletes regularly push themselves to train their bodies to tolerate and manage the lactic acid build-up enabling them to maintain a higher intensity of effort for longer.
Freeman’s coach Peter Fortune, who is credited with convincing her to switch to the longer sprint, reckons that to be successful, a top tier 400m runner needs the X factor.
And he saw that in Freeman, soon after he took over as her coach in 1990.
By 2000, she was unquestionably the best 400m runner in the world and she got there by running to a race plan, a simple plan, that she had worked out with Fortune.
And it was the same race plan they used for the final, one that Fortune had jotted down on a piece of paper as a visual reminder.
1. Fast start for 50m, no longer
It was based around the interplay of three key energy systems that a 400m runner draws on for their stamina. And these different systems are also why a runner can’t run flat out for the entire distance.
Muscle activity, such as physical exercise, relies on a source of energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
This is delivered using a chemical fuel stored in the muscles called creatine-phosphate (CP). But this source is only good for a quick burst of energy which, for a 400m runner, covers the first 30 to 50 metres.
“I believe that you start fast. The system really allows you an initial five or six seconds,” explains Fortune. “People sometimes try to run out too fast and [if that happens] most people will fatigue [too early].”
So I’m out of the blocks, over the first 30 metres and it’s a case of doing exactly what I know I need to do.
I’m feeling sharp, I’m not having a lot of contact on the ground, my body is feeling amazing.
– Cathy Freeman
2. Move from very fast to fast relaxed to the 200m mark
By now Freeman’s CP stores are depleting and her anaerobic glycolysis system will take over. A form of energy storage called glycogen becomes the dominant supplier of ATP.
For most runners, the second 100 is the fastest one — as it is for Freeman.
But this is the tricky part, according to Fortune. Good runners need to be able to dial down the intensity so they are running easily as opposed to running hard.
Maintain leg velocity
“It’s relaxing the legs, body just to be turning over rather than driving,” he says. “The idea is to get to 200 metres almost fatigue free.”
I feel like I’m being protected.
My ancestors were the first people to walk on this land. It’s a really powerful force. Those other girls were always going to have to come up against, you know, my ancestors.
– Cathy Freeman
3. Pick-up on bend a little to make sure of my position
“I’ve often said the event starts at the start, but I think the race actually starts at about 200 metre mark,” says Fortune.
Freeman is still running on the energy supplied by the anaerobic glycolysis system. But it’s around this point that lactic acid accumulated as a by-product of this process, begins causing muscle fatigue.
As the runner’s come through the final bend into the final straight, there’s a collective moment of a split-second of dread.
Freeman is trailing and Channel Seven commentator Bruce McAveney calls it: “[Jamaica’s Lorraine] Graham’s in front of her. Freeman’s got work.”
Nobody’s making a move. I’m waiting, I’m waiting for that challenge. Lorraine looks like she’s actually in the lead, I can feel that she doesn’t think that she can win this race, not this one, not tonight. This is my moment, 80 metres to go.
For the first time I feel the stadium, I feel the people, I feel their energy, I feel like I’m being carried.
– Cathy Freeman
4. Go hard from 120m to go and hold form to the finish line
While glycogen is still the main fuel source, the intake of oxygen is about to trigger the aerobic system to kick in and become the main supplier of ATP.
“[Now] you apply your last real effort … and often then the race is won by the one who controls their last hundred metres the best,” says Fortune.
As the field enters the home stretch mark, 83.39m from the finish, the timer reads 37.2 and Freeman is still second or third but gaining.
Powerful driving arms and legs
Only three women can now win this race: Freeman in lane 6, Lorraine Graham in lane 4 or Briton Katharine Merry in lane 3.
It takes Freeman 15 loping strides in a 4-second burst to pull ahead. Twenty-six steps later she crosses the finishing line, comfortably ahead of Graham in second place.
And the moment I’m airborne across the line I think to myself for the first time, so this is what it feels like to be an Olympic champion.
I can’t even hear a thing except just this incredible, dense, thick, impenetrable energy and noise, that is almost too much to bear.
– Cathy Freeman
- Cathy Freeman smiles after winning gold at the Sydney Olympics, AAP: Dean Lewis
- Marita Koch at the 1984 East German Athletics Championships, Supplied: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1984-0402-025 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
- Marie-José Pérec winning gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Reuters: Action Images
To mark the twentieth anniversary of her Olympic gold medal, Cathy Freeman gives a rare and deeply personal account of her path to glory in Freeman, a new documentary which premieres on Sunday, September 13 at 7:40pm on ABC + iview. All the quotes in this story from Freeman come from the documentary.