She won gold and a nation’s hearts. This is how Cathy Freeman’s supersuit was born
In the days before the Boxing Day Test match of 2014, a mysterious package arrived at the National Sports Museum at the MCG. There was no return address but it contained a prized item and an accompanying note.
“You should have it … to let the people see,” the anonymous sender wrote.
Inside the box was Cathy Freeman’s long-lost bodysuit from the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.
Stitched together the night before the ceremony, the white suit with pale blue features had been missing since the night of September 15, 2000, when Freeman wore it to light the ring of fire at Stadium Australia.
She had been drenched by a waterfall she stood under that night as she took centre stage, and then had to wait for longer than planned because of a malfunction with the cauldron making its way to the top of the stadium.
But after Freeman climbed out of the wet fabric in a room under the stadium, the suit vanished. And, for 14 years, its whereabouts had been an unsolved mystery.
“When I changed out of the bodysuit I was pretty keen to get out of there and home to sleep as I had training the next day and was obviously yet to compete,” Freeman tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age now, nearly 20 years after her headline turn at the Sydney Games as the final torchbearer and then, to the jubilation of a nation, the gold medal winner on the track in the women’s 400 metres.
“The entire time, before and after I lit the cauldron, I was not once left alone. I’m quite certain that somebody took the bodysuit from me as soon as I took it off. From that point on it was entirely out of my hands and out of my mind.”
What was firmly on Freeman’s mind was, of course, her race. Ten days later she would run the 400 metres as a raging hot favourite to win gold, and with an expectant nation on her shoulders.
And, in the race of her life, Freeman was quietly planning to wear a second bodysuit; this one a revolutionary, hi-tech race suit. It had been much longer in the making.
How the supersuit was born
A relieved Freeman after her historic victory.Credit:Craig Golding
But at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Ben Johnson was sprung for steroids and Canada, as Brownlie puts it, he became a whole lot less interested in track and field, and sports science in general.
The experimental race suits he had made were packed up into his Vancouver basement and only got dragged out occasionally by his children to use for Halloween costumes.
Brownlie sent his thesis to Nike regardless in 1993 and, five years later, when Harber rang, he was suddenly back in the game.
As they set about measuring the performance of more than 50 different fabrics by applying them to a cylinder and testing them in wind tunnels at the University of British Columbia, University of Washington and University of California, Freeman, whose husband was a Nike executive, was flown to the United States to get involved in the project.
Early design sketches were plucked from the pages of a Marvel comic.
“We measured the speed of each part of her body and the frontal area, the size of each body part, and then in a wind tunnel we tested all kinds of fabric and then assigned different fabrics to different parts of her body,” Harber says.
“That’s why you ended up with this kind of crazy looking suit with all these different fabrics all over it. The hand was made of that silver shiny coated fabric … that’s because the hand is really fast and moving super quick. Other areas were rougher, like a golf ball.”
Freeman and the Nike team continued testing in the US and in Melbourne during 1999 and when they weren’t on the same continent she would be filmed at training at Olympic Park in Melbourne, speaking to camera about the latest version of the suit before her feedback was emailed to Portland.
An early sketch of the Freeman suit.
“She was into it and liked the idea of it but it had to be super comfortable,” Harber says. “She’d say, ‘This bit’s uncomfortable’ or whatever and we’d make changes and do another prototype and send it to her.”
In all that time, though, Freeman wore a full body race suit only once in competition, a "stealth" version on a rainy day in Gateshead in the north of England in the months before the Olympics. Athletes are notoriously averse to competing with equipment they haven't trialled extensively but Freeman was sold.
She told Nike she felt like she was slicing through the air when she was moving her arms.
“I had great faith in Nike and I had trialled the suit a number of times in training, and once in a 200m race beforehand,” Freeman says.
Freeman trials the full-body suit in competition in the north of England in 2000.Credit:Allsport
“Ultimately, I simply enjoyed the way it made me feel when I ran even though I had a reservation about the way it made me look.”
In the background, Nike had resolved a potential problem by also partnering with the Australian Olympic Committee as its team supplier late in the piece before Sydney, after a bust-up with Reebok and a mad dash to Oregon by the AOC’s secretary-general Craig McLatchey.
In the pool, there had been a major drama about Ian Thorpe’s desire to wear an adidas textile swimsuit despite Australian swimming’s contract with Speedo (the teenager had been allowed to wear it ultimately, without brand markings).
Because of the Australian team’s late switch to Nike, there would be no such problem for Freeman on the track.
“It raised a few murmurs but it was technical equipment just like a pair of running shoes so it was not an issue,” says former long-time AOC media chief Mike Tancred.
Over the span of a few years, Freeman had worked with Harber and the Nike team extensively about the space-age suit, with eyes on Sydney and the night of September 25, 2000.
But they were still in the dark about whether she would wear their suit in the 400m final until the very last moment. She hadn’t worn it in the heats and semi-finals and the Nike types were jittery.
“We were in the Nike hospitality [area, in Sydney] and there were rumours knocking around. I was sort of hopeful but didn’t know,” Harber says.
“For the race, we were on the opposite side of the stadium from where the athletes came out of the tunnel. We had binoculars and she came out and she was in her warm-up [gear] so we didn’t know what she was wearing. But then she leant down and did up her shoelaces and a guy I worked with on the project – Rick MacDonald – he saw the silver hands.
“There was like 10 of us in a line who had all been working on the project. I was delighted but Rick went white as a sheep and said, ‘What if she doesn’t win?’. I hadn’t even thought about that.”
He needn’t have worried. With a supernatural roar behind her, Freeman overpowered Jamaican Lorraine Graham and Katharine Merry of Great Britain before a record crowd of 112,524.
Freeman hits the front in the 400m final.Credit:Fairfax
Brownlie says the team behind the suit found between a five and 10 per cent reduction in drag. The addition of a hood, as strange as it might have looked, was no accident.
“Big hair is slow,” Brownlie says. “That’s all there is to it. And so is skin actually. For some reason most people’s skin is slower than if you cover it with a textured fabric.
“There is no data to support this but I feel that perhaps she was maybe not needing to take quite as much energy to go at the speed she was going because of the aerodynamic improvement of the first three-quarters of the race. And then when everyone tires over that last 100m she was perhaps a little fresher. She really gapped everyone over the last 100m.”
The first Nike Swift suit, which was further developed to help transform apparel in speed skating and cycling and was later the model for a space suit, was available to other athletes in Sydney. American sprinter Marion Jones wore it in a heat and Michael Johnson’s teammates in the US men’s 4x400m relay also tried it. But only Freeman donned it in full, headwear and all, and in an individual Olympic final.
“I think looking back on it she was sort of saving it for the final and saw it as a suit of armour in a way,” Harber says. “And she won. It was incredible.”
The secret flaw in Freeman's white suit
Standing with her dog Bella in Auburn police station, only a few minutes’ drive from the Sydney Olympic precinct, Jennifer Irwin recognised her own mistake immediately.
The Sydney designer had made costumes for the opening and closing ceremonies, including the white bodysuit Freeman would wear to carry the torch.
It had been made under the same shroud of secrecy in which Freeman had been told she would be lighting the Olympic flame, five months earlier. AOC president John Coates had taken Freeman and her then husband, Sandy Bodecker, out to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles to let them know, and then swore them to secrecy. No one could know.
Irwin, who had a single outfit to sew together for the opening ceremony, was told who would be wearing it only hours before.
“About midnight [the night before] they told us who it was going to be,” Irwin says. “I knew it was her but I never had a fitting. I just had her measurements.
“I cut the fabric out, I laid it down, it was late at night and we’d been going for months and months and months … and I put the Olympic rings on upside down.”
The error allowed Irwin to recognise it immediately when Auburn police called her in December 2014, informing her it had turned up out of the blue after going missing for nearly 15 years.
A photo taken of Freeman's bodysuit in 2014 at Auburn police station, where Jennifer Irwin, accompanied by her dog Bella, went to identify it.
Irwin suspects it must have been taken by someone “on the inside”.
“It was pretty restricted security area, not as restrictive as it nowadays because it was pre-9/11,” she says. “But it was somebody who obviously had a security pass, put it that way. How they got into Cathy’s room without being seen and taking it, I don’t know. She had her own dressing-room.”
The handwritten message was the giveaway for the man who received the package, says Jed Smith, the manager of the Australian Sports Museum, where the Freeman race suit has resided for many years.
“There was a note with it that was all about ‘I feel guilty, I’ve had it all this time, you should have it … to let people see it’,” Smith says.
“So whoever stole it – and I’m assuming it was theft – it seems that they had a guilt trip 15-odd years later.”
Such was the whirlwind of Sydney, Freeman says she didn’t even know the bodysuit was missing until several years after the Games, when she realised it wasn’t among all her other sporting memorabilia.
It was returned to her in Melbourne after being identified by Irwin.
For those in the Australian Olympic movement who knew it was gone, though, the suit’s disappearance had always been a great post-Sydney mystery.
Freeman with fellow torch bearers Dawn Fraser, Debbie Flintoff-King, Raelene Boyle and Betty Cuthbert.Credit:Andy Zakeli
Most thought the suit had been accidentally thrown away amid the chaos, so its re-emergence was welcomed with broad smiles.
“[Freeman] had been standing there and getting drenched that night and all over of Australia was expecting her to win her race … we didn’t want her to catch pneumonia,” says Tancred.
“We were told she just discarded it because it was so wet and when we found out it disappeared we thought a cleaner had just picked it up and thrown it in the nearest skip. We were amazed when it re-appeared."
Six years later, and two decades after her starring role in Sydney, they are still none the wiser about where the suit went. Or who had it for all that time.
"He is a mystery man."
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up to the Herald‘s weekday newsletter here and The Age‘s weekly newsletter here.
Source: Read Full Article