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Aborigine champion rejects call to boycott Olympics

November 12, 1997 GMT

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Cathy Freeman draws strength from her Aboriginal roots. The champion runner, however, refuses to boycott an Olympics in her home country.

An open letter by the Nyungah Circle of Elders from Western Australia has targeted Freeman and asked her to boycott the 2000 Sydney Games to help Aborigines in their dispute with Australia’s government over land rights.

``Cathy Freeman, we ask you not to run. Stand and mourn with us,″ the letter said.

The approach was rejected by Freeman’s manager and former boyfriend Nick Bideau and has surprised other members of the Aboriginal movement.

``We love her we want to see her run _ she’s Australia’s golden girl,″ said leading Aboriginal spokesman Terry O’Shane. ``We totally reject the suggestion of a boycott of the Olympics.″

Bideau said Freeman, the world champion at 400 meters and Australia’s premier athlete, would not be dragged into the land rights debate.

``These people have tried to use her fame for their own good,″ Bideau said.

On Wednesday, Olympic champion Carl Lewis urged Freeman to participate.

``I haven’t seen the benefits of boycotting, you should race and try to make a difference,″ said Lewis, who was involved in the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and saw the effect of the Eastern bloc boycott on the 1984 Los Angeles games. ``Just being there makes a difference, being seen. You can inspire young people to be the best they can be.″

Lewis and Freeman were together to promote Grand Prix events in Melbourne and Sydney early next year.

Relations between Aborigines and the Australian government are at a low, with the two sides exchanging barbs on the eve of a parliamentary debate on laws that will severely restrict Aborigines’ land rights.

Freeman first won the hearts of her compatriots as a shy 16-year-old when she was part of the Australian 4 x 100 meter team that captured the Commonwealth Games gold medal in New Zealand in 1990. At the time, she deferred commenting on the Aborigines.

Four years later Freeman won the 400- and 200-meter gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Canada. She did victory laps carrying the Australian and Aboriginal flags, the latter a yellow circle on a red and black background. Yellow for the sun, red for the earth, black for the skin.

The move brought condemnation from chef de mission Arthur Tunstall but few others, and was credited with doing much for uniting white Australia with Aborigines.

At the news conference following her first gold, Freeman talked openly about her skin color and Aboriginal issues.

``I know that when Aboriginal people look at that flag, they all feel good about themselves,″ Freeman said. ``If I can help Aboriginals feel good about themselves, I’ll do whatever it takes.″

Freeman went on to win the silver medal behind Frenchwoman Marie-Jose Perec at the Atlanta Olympics and then the gold medal at the world championships in Greece this year.

The Aboriginal flag was left in her sports bag in Atlanta after officials told her that carrying it would break International Olympic Committee rules.

But there were no such rules in Athens, and Freeman again paraded with the two flags, to widespread praise at home. She became the first Aborigine to capture a world or Olympic track title.

``Being the first is always special,″ she said. ``I’m so glad of what I am _ Australian and Aboriginal. They’re two and the same.″

Freeman’s pride rubs off on young Aborigines. When she visited an inner-city Sydney ghetto last year, where Aborigines live in condemned houses, she was mobbed for autographs.

``It makes little children feel they have a chance when they see me, feel me, touch me,″ Freeman said. ``I take my role seriously as role model.″