Freeman becomes first Aboriginal winner; Johnson reaches 400 final
Aug. 04, 1997
ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ Cathy Freeman made history and Michael Johnson made amends.
Freeman, a 24-year-old Australian, became the first Aborigine to win a world or Olympic title, taking the women's 400 meters at the world championships on Monday night.
``Tonight, I will be a proud girl,'' Freeman said after her dramatic triumph and slow victory lap around Olympic Stadium with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags. ``It gives me a special feeling. Being the first is always special.
``I'm so glad of what I am, Australian and Aboriginal. They're two and the same.''
Freeman has been campaigning throughout the world for Aborigine rights, so her victory took on great political significance.
``It was very important because it shows I can deal with the pressure ... the pressure put on me by outsiders,'' Freeman said. ``It makes little children feel they have a chance when they see me, feel me, touch me. I take my role seriously as a role model.''
Johnson, taking his role seriously as the world's best 400-meter runner after a mistake Sunday that almost cost him a place in the semifinals, reasserted his authority by winning his heat and advancing to Tuesday night's final.
``Yesterday, I was very disappointed in myself,'' the world and Olympic gold medalist said, after high-fiving his three other American teammates who reached the final, along with three Britons.
Freeman was not the only athlete to make history Monday night.
Llewellyn Herbert became the first South African to win a medal in the world championships, earning the silver in the men's 400-meter hurdles.
However, it was Freeman who was the most emotional. On the victory stand, she jumped in jubilation when her name was announced. After the Australian anthem, she broke into tears.
Earlier, she had difficulty carrying the flags around the track because she was drained from her race.
``I felt just strong enough to hold the two flags,'' she said.
She didn't have any intention of letting them go, however, summoning all her strength to walk slowly instead of jogging, as gold medalists usually do, but with only one flag.
Freeman, running out of the unfavorable lane one, held off a late charge from her training partner of the past three weeks, Sandie Richards of Jamaica, and won in 49.77 seconds. Richards was second in a career-best 49.79.
Richards is well aware of Freeman's political battle.
``She's from Australia and they don't look up to Aboriginals,'' Richards said. ``There are a lot of prejudices against Cathy Freeman. She's trying to rise above them.
``They're nominating people to carry the flag in 2000 (at the Sydney Olympics) and some people are questioning why she should be nominated, why does she shave her head to get attention and why she hasn't won any big races.''
The two held each other before the race, and Richards told her ``she could do it even though I was in the race. I told her we could be 1-2.''
Freeman, the first Aboriginal to represent Australia in the Olympics, won the silver medal last year, finishing behind Marie-Jose Perec of France.
Perec, who also won the 200 at the Atlanta Games, did not defend her world title, and is competing in only the 200 at the championships.
The only other Australian to win a world title was Rob de Castella, the 1983 marathon champion.
Johnson, whose 58-meet winning streak in the 400 was broken in June, rebounded from his near failure in the heats at the championships by winning his semifinal in 44.37, the year's fourth-fastest time.
With Johnson awarded a wild card as defending champion, the United States was permitted to have three other entrants in the 400. The three _ Antonio Pettigrew, Tyree Washington and Jerome Young _ all reached the final, with Washington taking the other semifinal in 44.61.
The rest of the final field will consist of Britons Mark Richardson, Jamie Baulch and Iwan Thomas, along with Ugandan Davis Komaga.
Herbert was beaten for the hurdles title by France's Stephane Diagana, who, after crossing the finish in a 1997 world-best in 47.70, collapsed onto the track.
Herbert was timed in 47.86, a South African record. American Bryan Bronson, the previous world leader and heavy favorite after Olympic gold medalist Derrick Adkins was eliminated in the semifinals, faded after a fast start and finished third at 47.88.
After Diagana was helped up, he took a victory lap, and Herbert joined him, carrying the South African flag.
Herbert foresees a bright future for himself.
``From now on, it's just going up and becoming the Edwin Moses of South Africa,'' he said.
In Monday's other finals, Sarka Kasparkova of the Czech Republic won the women's triple jump with a world-leading 49 feet, 10 1/2 inches, and Germany's Sabine Braun, the 1991 heptathlon champion, regained the title with 6,739 points.
Kasparkova's leap was the third-best ever and made her the No. 2 all-time performer, behind Ukraine's Inessa Kravets. Romania's Rodica Mateescu, the runner-up, had the fifth-best performance in history at 49-9.
The world's top two men's 1,500-meter runners _ Noureddine Morceli of Algeria and Hicham el Guerrouj of Morocco _ won their semifinal heats, setting up a showdown in Wednesday's final.
A big surprise was the failure of Olympic champion Charles Austin to advance to the men's high jump final. Austin, also the 1991 world champion, failed to make the qualifying height of 7-5 3/4, clearing only 7-5.