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Tuesday, June 6, 2000
First home-soil torchbearer hopes to highlight Aborigines

 DARWIN, Australia (AP) -- The Australian who'll be the first Olympic torchbearer on home soil hopes to highlight the plight of the country's indigenous people.

 Nova Peris-Kneebone, the only Australian Aborigine to win a gold medal at an Olympics, will carry the flame when it lands Thursday at Uluru in central Australia.

 "To be an Aboriginal person myself and to carry that flame -- the world's going to be talking and it's a chance for us to tell the world about our culture," she said Tuesday.

 Peris-Kneebone was part of the Australian women's field hockey team that triumphed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

 And -- like 400 meters world champion Cathy Freeman, also an Aborigine -- she thinks she can help unite black and white Australians by competing at the Sydney Olympics.

 She'll have to make Australia's track and field team first. After Atlanta, Peris-Kneebone left hockey for sprinting, her favorite sport as a child, and will compete for an Olympic berth at team trials in August.

 Aborigines lived in Australia before white settlement in 1788, but have only limited land rights. Prime Minister John Howard has been criticized for refusing to apologize for the practices of past governments.

 "We have had injustices in our past," Peris-Kneebone said. "You can't change our past, but you can acknowledge it. Once you acknowledge it then we can all move forward."

 Aborigines comprise about 386,000 of Australia's nearly 19 million population. Government surveys show they have the poorest health and education, and the highest rates of alcoholism, infant mortality and imprisonment.

 Peris-Kneebone will hand the torch to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta people, custodians of the world's largest monolith. About 20 Uluru-Kata Tjuta people will continue the relay around the huge red rock before the torch continues its journey north to Alice Springs.

 From there, the relay will embark on a 100-day, 16,740-mile route around Australia, involving about 11,000 torchbearers and passing within driving distance of 80 percent of the population.

 The torch's final destination is Sydney's Stadium Australia, where on Sept. 15, the flame will light the cauldron during the opening ceremony for the 2000 Olympics.

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