SYDNEY, Australia — One lap. One glorious lap. One run around the track when you are faster than them all, faster than anyone in the world. What does such a lap mean?
For Michael Johnson, it was about a legacy: his own.
For Cathy Freeman, it was about a legacy: her nation’s.
And when you compare them that way, Johnson’s quest — which, like Freeman’s, was achieved Monday with a stirring gold-medal performance — seems rather cold and indifferent, doesn’t it? But don’t be fooled. When it comes to the reasons why, you would still rather be in the USA than here in the Land of Oz.
Yes, it’s true, Australia went bonkers for its 400-meter champ. “Our Cathy!” they called her. “The race of our lives!” read one newspaper headline. Did we do that for Johnson — who wasn’t going for his first 400 gold but, even more incredibly, his second? No way. Plenty of Americans couldn’t give a hoot.
Meanwhile, all of Australia seemed to shut down Monday night for Freeman’s lap. Adults prayed. Children closed their eyes and crossed their fingers. Movie theaters were rented out for community viewings. The TV buildup was so jingoistic, the announcers nearly drowned in their own saliva.
The gun went off. And 50 seconds later, when Freeman, in a hooded yellow and green body suit, charged first across the finish line, elbows churning, feet plowing, well, you could hear the roar from Perth to the Great Barrier Reef.
She won! Cathy won! Freeman grabbed two flags, the Australian and the Aboriginal, and wrapped them over her shoulders for a barefoot victory lap.
“I made a lot of people happy tonight!” she gushed.
It was inspiring. It was moving. It dwarfed the reaction Johnson got. And for a moment, I wished I were Australian, just to feel part of that sensation.
And then I realized something: That would be wrong.
Because that would be taking a big step backward.
Michael Johnson might have been running more for himself than for his nation, but there’s a very good and simple reason for that: America, unlike Australia, does not need him to heal its wounds.
And thank goodness for that.
Could a medal unite Aussies?
Understand why the charismatic Freeman — who also lit the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremonies — is such an important figure in Australia. This is still a country racked by racism. The Aboriginal issue — like slavery in America — is its shame and its prickly thorn. Apologies have been demanded for how the Aussies have treated the indigenous people.
Only in Australia, the sentiment is against it. Despite abject poverty of the Aboriginal people and racist attitudes so clear to an outsider you sometimes want to holler, there is still great denial for what they call “the stolen generation” and the mistreatment of Aboriginals at the hands of white Aussies.
Freeman is a direct descendent of that treatment. Her grandmother was taken, as an 8-year-old, to Palm Island, a one-time penal settlement for “troublesome Aboriginals.” Cathy’s stepgrandfather, Sonny Sibley, helped lead a revolt against the terrible working conditions there in 1957.
Cathy’s mother was born there.
Monday night on Palm Island, 2,500 Aboriginals closed down their shops and offices early so they could be home to watch the race. The media covered this, naturally. It was part of the story they were hoping Freeman would write.
For if the selection of Freeman to light the cauldron was a symbol of reconciliation, an olive branch of sorts, to show whites could root just as hard for Aboriginals, then so too was all this support for her 400-meter race.
After all, while Australia has enjoyed some nice athletic success in these Games, most of it (think swimming pool) has been through the hands and feet of white youth.
Now here was Freeman, giving the Aussies their first track and field gold medal in 12 years, and she was black. And everyone liked her. And what did this mean for Australia?
Well, consider this paragraph from Tuesday morning’s newspaper:
“This was the minute the nation’s heart leapt in the breast and thudded against the ribs like a muffled drum.
“This was Australia’s 100th gold medal, and no athlete would wear the honor more appropriately.
“Freeman carried the Australian and Aboriginal flags in a victory lap around this great stadium and nobody could deny her the right this time to do it.
“She had lit the cauldron in one act of reconciliation. Last night we saw another such act….”
That’s not an editorial, folks. That’s the lead news story. This 400-meter run wasn’t a foot race. It was a national referendum.
And given the choice of being where Australia is, or where we are, I’d tell the Aussies “no thanks.”
Our athletes made their points
Sure, it’s true, athletes like Johnson and Maurice Green and Marion Jones and the Dream Team are already millionaires before they get to Sydney. And it’s true, they can seem aloof, removed, more concerned with endorsements and ego than the glory of the nation.
But some of that is simply an offshoot of how prosperous a nation we have become. And while it might be hubris that we have grown accustomed to winning medals, it is more admirable that our athletes do not see their races as proving black and white can live together as equals. We are, hopefully, past that.
Jesse Owens needed to make that point in Berlin, 1936. He did so by moving a long jump line back a few inches, so that Hitler’s minions could not call his jumps foul and deny him victory.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith needed to make that point in Mexico City, 1968. They raised their fists on a medal platform, just as black Americans back home were raising their voices for equality and fair treatment.
But today? We don’t look to Johnson, Greene or Jones to unify us. White America has been rooting for black athletes for a long time. Our biggest stars are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Deion Sanders.
And when Kurt Warner won the Super Bowl MVP, I don’t think many black Americans felt anger because he was white.
A few hours after Freeman’s victory, I was talking with a middle-aged Australian man, a white man, who was scoffing at all the attention being paid to “our Cathy.” “Did you hear what she said after the race?” he asked me. “She said her brothers were in the stands laughing — and they weren’t even drunk.”
He looked at me, rolled his eyes and gave a nod. I knew what that nod meant. It meant: You know how those people are.
Those emotions, thankfully, seem to be disappearing in America’s rearview mirrors. We are not wholly rid of them, but we are much further along than Australia.
Johnson, after winning his race, said he was inspired by Freeman’s victory. But while everyone in Australia might have thought the inspiration came from her heritage, Johnson was referring to her lane.
“She was in Lane 6, same as me, and I was motivated by her running there as well as she did.”
In this case, you cannot only forgive Johnson for seeing things so
…athletically, you can almost admire it. One day, destiny willing, we will all be in a place where we talk about inspiration based on performance, not the color of the performer.
Until then, as loud and emotional as Freeman’s victory was, I’ll still take Johnson’s gold. It might not have reconciled our race relations. Then again, it didn’t have to.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).