Commonwealth Sports Moments #4: Cathy Freeman carries the Aboriginal and Australian flags on victory laps at Victoria 1994

At just 16-years-old Cathy Freeman ran her way into the history books at Auckland in 1990 when she became the first female Aboriginal ever to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal in the 4x100 metres.

It was the start of a remarkable career that will be remembered as much for the social barriers she broke down in Australia as the races she won.

By the time of the next Commonwealth Games four years later in Victoria, Freeman had competed at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and there were signs she was maturing into one of the world's best sprinters.

Before she left for Canada, Freeman carefully folded up a black, red and yellow Aboriginal flag and folded it neatly into her kit bag. She promised herself that if she won a gold medal in the 200 or 400 metres then she would carry it round with her on the lap of honour.

Freeman was born in Mackay in Queensland in February 1973, three hours from her extended family who lived at Woorabinda, an Aboriginal mission. She moved around with her family, living in Hugehendan, describing it as a "dry and dusty coal-mining town", 500 kilometres west of Mackay, and Kooralbyn, on the outskirts of Beaudesert in South East Queensland.

She became involved in athletics at a very young age and from her first race at eight-years-old, Freeman claimed that she was "hooked" on running. One of Freeman's primary teachers, Mrs Bauldry, raised money for her to attend the state primary school championships and bought her a pair of running spikes. Bauldry's encouragement made Freeman aware of the "excitement [her] running generated among adults". 

Cathy Freeman is an important figure in the reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians ©Getty Images
Cathy Freeman is an important figure in the reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians ©Getty Images

As she grew older, her passion for athletics came to dominate her thoughts and life. "The dream evolved throughout my childhood and by the time I was at high-school I wasn't thinking about anything else," she said. "The first thing I remember about running is how happy it made me feel."

At 14, Freeman told her vocational officer that her only career goal was to win an Olympic medal. By then, she had already won national titles in high jump, the 100m, 200m and 400m. 

In 1986, Freeman received a scholarship to board at Fairholme College in Toowoomba. She was out of place and homesick at a school which only had a few Aboriginal students, and was governed by strict routines and rules for dress and conduct.

She reflected on her first impressions of Fairholme College in her autobiography, Her Own Story. "What was a little black girl doing in a place like this?" she wrote. "For a young Aboriginal girl used to the laid back lifestyle of tropical Mackay, it was a major culture shock…it was like boot camp."

Freeman felt alienated and tended to daydream about Mackay. In 1989, she was held back a year because her marks were too low. "Some of the girls actually thought I was slow," she said. "While it was true that my heart wasn't in the classroom, I was disappointed that the teachers didn't support me more. It seemed to me that they didn't attempt to understand how it felt to be the only black girl in the class...I was too shy and scared to put up my hand and ask a question if I didn't know what was going on. I didn't want to bring any attention to myself; that was the way I had been raised."

A year later, when Freeman spoke at the International Olympic Committee in Tokyo in 1990 on behalf of Melbourne's bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games in Tokyo, she found herself thinking "If only the Fairholme girls could see me now".

Freeman still felt she benefited from her time at Fairholme College. "The place that had given me so much hell had actually grown on me," she said. "After 18 months there, I was much more confident in myself and had learnt a lot about the world from the students and teachers."

Freeman was also becoming increasingly aware that she was becoming a role model for the Aboriginal community, which is why she packed the flag, designed in 1971 by Luritja artist and land rights activist Harold Thomas from Central Australia, for her trip to Victoria. 

Australia's Chef de Mission for these Commonwealth Games was Arthur Tunstall, a 72-year-old variously nicknamed "King Arthur" because he thought he was always right about everything. At Auckland 1990, he had offended the host nation by declaring the two islands of New Zealand should be "the seventh and eighth states of Australia".

When Freeman won a gold medal in the 400m and carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her victory lap, Tunstall exploded with rage.

He ordered the Australian athletics team officials to inform Freeman not to display the Aboriginal flag in future events, such as the 200m. If she repeated her celebration with an indigenous flag, she would be sent home.

Freeman ignored the diktat and again paraded round the track with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags after her 200m victory. 

Tunstall's reprimand of Freeman divided the country. 

Asked if he had a problem with Freeman carrying the indigenous flag, Ray Godkin, President of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association, said: "I fail to see any problem with it.

"We see people run around with the boxing kangaroo flag all the time. It's not the official flag, and there are never any problems with that."

Parliamentarians, State and Federal and from both sides of politics, joined the debate, all criticising Tunstall.

Even the Prime Minister Paul Keating bought into the debate, claiming "the Games revealed the overall sentiment of Australians is for the reconciliation of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians".

Tunstall remained recalcitrant, arguing that "probably 40 per cent" of Australians would be against him and 60 per cent in his favour.

"The rules are laid down very clearly," he said.

"If the Bulgarians [members of the Australian weightlifting team who had recently gained Australian citizenship] had come out with the Bulgarian flag, you would have condemned them. How would the Canadians feel if the Quebecians (sic) flew their flag?"

As for Freeman, she kept a dignified silence, telling friends she carried both flags to show her elation in what was probably the most significant moment of her life to that point. She said she sought to encourage young indigenes to make something of their lives, "to achieve something".

The ultimate justification of Freeman's campaign came six years later when Australia's Aboriginal culture was a key theme of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Freeman was chosen to light the Olympic Cauldron at the Opening Ceremony and then raced to an emotional victory in the 400m before a highly-charged crowd.

Freeman retried from athletics in 2003. In 2007 she founded the Cathy Freeman Foundation. The Foundation works with four remote indigenous communities to close the gap in education between indigenous and non-indigenous Australian children by offering incentives for children to attend school.

In 2014 Fox Sports chose Freeman's performances at Victoria 1994 as the greatest moment in Australia's Commonwealth Games history. 

She will be an ambassador at Gold Coast 2018, where organisers will once again use a major event to help showcase Aboriginal history and culture. 

Freeman and Tunstall later settled their differences and even appeared alongside each other in a television advert promoting tea referencing the famous incident from Victoria 1994. 

He died in February 2016 at the age of 93.