SYDNEY, Australia -- Cathy Freeman carried the hopes of a nation and the dreams of a downtrodden people as she raced around the track. When she was done, she carried a flag -- half Australian, half aboriginal -- in a joyous victory lap.
Fifteen minutes later, Michael Johnson made Olympic history by becoming the first man to successfully defend a 400-meter title. Alvin Harrison won the silver medal to give the United States a 1-2 finish.
On the busiest night of track and field at the Sydney Games, American Stacy Dragila won the inaugural women's pole vault, Gabriela Szabo of Romania set an Olympic record in the women's 5,000 meters and Maria Mutola gave Mozambique its first Olympic gold medal by winning the women's 800.
In men's events, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia successfully defended his 10,000-meter title, Britain's Jonathan Edwards won the triple jump, Anier Garcia of Cuba won the 110-meter hurdles and Lithuania's Virgilijus Alekna won the discus.
Freeman, the first Aborigine to win an individual Olympic gold medal, captured the women's 400-meter gold medal in 49.11 seconds. Lorraine Graham of Jamaica won silver in 49.58 and Katharine Merry of Britain was the bronze medalist.
Freeman, wearing a full bodysuit, was even with Graham with about 20 meters to go, but pulled away at the end. A few strides past the finish line, she closed her eyes and let out several long sighs.
Then Freeman sat down on the track and pulled off her shoes. She looked drained with the excitement of victory and the relief of expectations fulfilled. She made her victory lap barefoot.
"It was a relief. I was totally overwhelmed by the crowd. I could feel the crowd all over me," she said. "All the emotion and happiness and joy in every pore of my body. I had to sit down and make myself get comfortable and feel normal."
Freeman opened these games by kindling the cauldron atop Olympic Stadium. And she provided the emotional peak of the games Monday for Australians, who filled the stadium -- the attendance was 112,524 -- with waves of pulsating noise as she ran.
"Running is like breathing. To me it was fun. I had a great time," she said. "Winning the gold is more precious than lighting the cauldron. When I lit the cauldron I was relieved I didn't fall in the water."
Freeman has not lost at 400 meters in three years. She now has an Olympic title to go with her two world championships. She's a national hero to Australians, and much more than that to her fellow Aborigines, Australia's original inhabitants.
By carrying the red, yellow and black aboriginal flag around the track, Freeman fulfilled a wish of Aborigines from inner-city Sydney to the forbidding bush of central Australia.
"It is a great victory, a victory that she deserves," said International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. "We are all extremely happy that this young aboriginal woman has won for all of Australia."
The crowd chanted "Ca-thy! Ca-thy!" as Freeman accepted her gold medal -- Australia's 100th -- and joined her in singing the national anthem. Freeman then walked to the stands and handed a bouquet of flowers to her mother.
"The pressure was a lot in front of my home crowd," she said. "This has been a dream since I was a little girl and it's why I'm emotional."
Johnson never was challenged in the final and won in 43.84 seconds. Harrison was second in 44.40 seconds and Gregory Haughton of Jamaica got the bronze medal. It was the eighth time Americans have won the gold and silver medals at an Olympics in the men's 400.
Johnson, whose upright running style has become as familiar to fans as his victories, savored the victory in his individual Olympic finale -- taking a long, slow victory lap with Harrison. Johnson still plans to run in the 1,600-meter relay this weekend.
"You know how I feel about making history, and to be able to do that and end my Olympic career like that is a dream come true," he said. "The pressure was on tonight to finish my career without any bronze or silver."
Johnson has won four Olympic and nine world championship medals -- all gold.
In the 100-meter hurdles, Garcia won in 13.00 seconds and stripped off his shirt in triumph. Terrence Trammell took silver in 13.16 and his U.S. teammate, Mark Crear, won the bronze medal.
Defending champion Allen Johnson, who hit each of the 10 hurdles, was fourth in 13.23 -- a hundredth of a second behind Crear, the 1996 silver medalist. World champion Colin Jackson was fifth.
Alekna won the discus gold medal with a throw of 69.30 meters (227 feet, 4 inches). The 1996 Olympic champion, Lars Riedel of Germany, won the silver and Frantz Kruger of South Africa took the bronze.
Dragila's winning clearance in the pole vault was 15 feet, 1 inch (4.60 meters). She failed at three attempts to break her own world record. Tatiana Grigorieva of Australia won the silver and Vala Flofadottir of Iceland the bronze.
Szabo, the 1996 silver medalist, won the 5,000 in 14 minutes, 40.79 seconds -- smashing the Olympic record by more than 19 seconds. Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland won the silver and Gete Wami of Ethiopia the bronze.
Mutola, the 1996 bronze medalist, came from behind on the final stretch to win the women's 800 in 1:56.15 -- playfully sticking her tongue out after crossing the finish line. Stephanie Graf of Austria was second and Kelly Holmes of Britain won bronze.
Edwards, a silver medalist four years ago, had a winning leap of 58-1 1/4 (17.71 meters) in the triple jump. Yoel Garcia of Cuba took the silver and Denis Kapustin of Russia got the bronze.
Gebrselassie, who has not lost at 10,000 meters since 1993, needed a dramatic kick on the closing straight to catch Kenya's Paul Tergat at the finish line. Gebrselassie won in 27:18.20 -- nine hundredths of a second faster than Tergat. Assefa Mezgebu of Ethiopia took the bronze.
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