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Tuesday, September 19, 2000
Freeman: 'Honour for the

aboriginal people'


 SYDNEY (AP) -- Cathy Freeman says her selection to light the flame for the Sydney Olympics was "a tremendous honour for the aboriginal people," yet she realizes not all Australians were pleased by the choice.

 Freeman, in her first news conference since being surrounded by flames and cascading water last week as she kindled the cauldron, said choosing an indigenous Australian for that role was a thrill for many people.

 "I think a lot of people got a kick out of me lighting the flame," she said Tuesday. "It was a tremendous honour for the aboriginal people."

 Australia's original inhabitants, Aborigines now are a troubled minority of 386,000 mostly impoverished people. They are beset by substance abuse, poor health, little education and crime.

 Freeman is an inspiration and a source of pride for her fellow Aborigines, as well as a powerful spokeswoman for their cause.

 Many indigenous Australians say it was a defining moment in their lives when Freeman took a victory lap with the aboriginal flag after winning the 400 metres at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.

 After being publicly rebuked by team officials for that display, Freeman went out and won the 200 metres -- and again paraded with the red, yellow and black flag.

 And her outspokenness on aboriginal issues has made her even more of a hero to indigenous people.

 In July, she accused Australian leaders of insensitivity for refusing to apologize for government policies that forced the removal of about 100,000 aboriginal children from their homes from 1910 until the 1970s.

 Freeman stayed away from any overt political statements at the news conference and warned that "people choose to use me as a symbol for all sorts of causes," but made it clear her selection to light the flame was a potent symbol.

 Freeman, the overwhelming favourite at Sydney to win the 400 metres and become the first aboriginal person to capture an individual Olympic gold medal, first learned of her selection to light the flame when Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates met with her a few months ago at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles.

 "Of course I was shocked and numbed and I was totally blown away. How could I say no?" she said. "I was very, very honored. Very proud."

 Freeman was so excited after lighting the cauldron Friday that she couldn't fall asleep until the middle of the night. While she was waiting for the torch, she said she became worried about how people would react to her selection.

 "When I got the flame I was very embarrassed. I was thinking about what all the people were going to think about Cathy Freeman lighting the torch. I tend to think about the negative things," she said. "You can't please everybody. Everybody has different views."

 But Freeman said those doubts disappeared when she was handed the torch by former Olympic hurdling champion Debbie Flintoff-King and the 110,000 people in the Olympic Stadium cheered wildly.

 "All the negatives went out of my head," she said. "I felt the absolute energy and emotion coming from all the people in the stadium."
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