The amazing thing about the Olympics is that races that stop a nation are pretty much a dime a dozen. Costa Rica out of action whenever Claudia Poll hits the water. Ethiopia breathless with excitement for the 10,000 metre final. Stephen Redgrave giving Britons something to really sit in front of a television about in the coxless four rowing.
This time, it was our turn to be stopped, and I had the brilliant fortune to be in the southern stand for the 49 seconds that mattered. ‘No pressure from me, Cathy, ‘ I lied as I watched her emerge from the tunnel, sleek and long limbed and bestowing on the green and custard yellow a grace to which that combination should never have aspired.
‘Give me a C,’ a fat man in a ‘Because I’m free’ T-shirt yelled as she moved to her blocks. Everyone was all too happy to give him a ‘C’, the stadium cascading into an excited ‘Cathy, Cathy.’ My brother Ned was desperately worried about the chanting. ‘If people were chanting my name like that, I’d want to sink into the track.’
The tracksuit came off to reveal the bodysuit, a thin material layer protecting her ears from the greatest volume of noise I have heard in a sporting stadium. My brother Ned and I had a clear pre-race plan. Australia had won the 4 x 100 men’s freestyle relay after we’d drunk two beers from gold cans, and we were now fanatically hanging onto that as some sort of omen. ‘Ned, Ned,’ I chanted as he titled his head back. No pressure, Ned, but they’re taking their blocks.
On your marks. Cathy was performing her own pre-race routine now, one that involved less beer and more deep breathing and back arching..Set. Suddenly the amplifier was turned down on 112,000 people, and Cathy was alone, just her and nineteen million people grabbing onto her shoulders and asking for a piggy-back around the stadium.
The gun cracked, and somehow over a monsoon of noise, Ned managed to yell, ‘She’s started well’. With the stagger, and the human eye’s abilities in observing reaction times measured in hundredths of seconds, it seemed a remarkable call, and I later found out that he’d intended yelling it on any start other than a false start. But it turned out he was right. The greatest Australian sprinter since Betty Cuthbert was away and firing in lane 6, and might even have been in front as she glided into the back straight.
The cameras winked, a lightshow to knock the socks off any of the Fox FM Skyshows (even the much lauded Skyshow 4). Freeman was solid, but Graham was definitely going faster on her inside. ‘Go Cathy,’ I shrieked showing the sort of barracking initiative that has made the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ an institution. ‘Go Cathy,’ Ned echoed. I glanced at the scoreboard and there was a close-up on Graham clearly in front. No pressure Cathy, but would you mind moving it along a little.
For six months, I’ve nearly cried every time I’ve heard them play McAvaney saying ‘Freeman kicks again, Perec responds’ over the footage of them straightening up in Atlanta. Now it was time to straighten up again, time to find out who was actually in front, and for four lucky cans of beer to work their magic and bring Cathy home.
The field straightened up and, as she did four years ago, Cathy kicked again, because she’s brilliant and brave and runs in pain better than any other athlete in our history. Eighty metres to go and she was clearly in front. Forty metres to go and we found our jumping rhythm. Ten metres to go and there was a bit going on lactic acid wise in those magnificent legs. Over the line and as that deep Aemrican voice used to say on those old documentaries, ‘She is the Olympic champion.’
She did it. Of course we wouldn’t have minded if she had not. No pressure and all that. But she did do it, and the achievement was enough to set us off into a chorus of Waltzing Matilda. Actually, we tried for a verse and chorus, but the all powerful ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ swept the stadium and drowned us out. But we had our chance to sing again – this time a deafening national anthem with Cathy at the top of the podium.
‘How girt by sea are we? Ned smiled as we sat down.
“We are so girt by sea.’