Olympic Torch can cheer up the bleakest of outlooks
Western Daily Press reporter Tristan Cork on why the Olympic torch magic seems to have struck a chord far and wide...
I was a cynic, but with these things I always am to start with. For one thing, it’s not a proper relay, I sniffed, because they shove it back on the bus to go between towns.
And, then there’s the whole point of the torch relay – a sop to the regions who aren’t getting a sniff of the Olympics – after all what does the regeneration of a rundown bit of east London mean to the folk of Carhampton in Somerset?
And then there’s the whole uncomfortable origins of it all. The idea of a flame originated at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, but it was switched on with little ceremony by an employee of the local electric company.
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For the person who really loved the idea of an Olympic torch relay was Joseph Goebbels. He organised the 1936 Berlin Games and saw the propaganda potential of linking Ancient Greece with Hitler’s idea of an Aryan super-race. So he made 3,000 people run 2,000 miles up through the Balkans and Hungary. There were protests, which were stamped on by the Nazi jackboot.
So it has chequered origins. But if Goebbels and Hitler were to be somehow watching the Olympic torch wend its way through Somerset and Wiltshire over the past couple of days, they would not like it one little bit.
For the torch relay has brought this region to life. It has energised us in a way I never thought it would. Where one imagined there’d be dozens of people turn out, there are hundreds, ten deep on the side of the road. Where there might be hundreds, there are tens of thousands.
Why? And what do they see? It lasts, let’s be honest, a few seconds. There’s a minibus, a couple of coaches and then six frighteningly fit policemen and women in grey t-shirt and shorts, running either side of someone in a white tracksuit holding a gold cone with a flickery flame at the top of it. That’s about it.
But it’s what it all represents that is brilliant. Sure, there’s something about a flame that was lit on the other side of the continent in an ancient site has been passed on and never gone out, and is before you now. That’s almost the stuff that gets the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up.
Then there’s the element of ‘once in a lifetime’ about it all. Said so often, it’s become a cliché, but the old boys of 1948 are few and far between to tell of how the last time the torch was here.
That is probably enough to get the crowds out, perhaps. It’s worth making an effort for, surely. Imagine sitting at home in ten years’ time and saying, ‘yeah, well, the Olympic torch came to my town but I couldn’t be bothered to go out and watch for 15 minutes’. You’d feel like some sort of dullard loser, surely.
I was chatting the other day, as one does, with BBC Sport presenter John Inverdale, and proposed to him the theory that it was good that our corner of the world – he’s from Iron Acton, near Bristol – was getting first dibs of the Olympic Torch relay because after a few weeks, the nation would be sick of it.
He instantly disagreed, arguing that the torch relay would gather interest and fervour as it rolled around the country like a broken satnav follower. Judging by the fever-pitch excitement already, it’ll be like a massive One Direction concert and the nation will be screaming like teenage girls by the time the torch comes back to Wiltshire and Dorset in July, if he’s right.
The organisers had worried that us Brits would be ambivalent or cynical about the torch relay, fearing few people would bother to go out to watch it or, worse, people would go out to sneer or protest.
There’s been none of that. Maybe it’s because we here in the West seldom get to be the centre of something so global. Maybe it’s because, with carnivals in our DNA, we know how to stand on the side of a road and wait for something exciting to come past.
Maybe it’s because we’re not as cynical and sniffy as those up in that there London, who always have to put things down to be superior. It’s a torch being carried by someone, why not give them a cheer?
But more than that, it’s the people who are carrying that flame that are making this a breathtaking spectacle. It’s not about Coca-Cola or the other sponsors. It’s not even about the likes of Jonathan Edwards getting their spikes back on, although that’s a nice touch.
It’s about the totally ordinary, random people who get a minute or two to be at the centre of something bigger than anyone. And of course, no one is ordinary. They are all inspiring, extraordinary people.
A cursory browse through the pen profiles of the hundreds and hundreds of people who have carried the torch 300m reveals the everyday stories of quiet altruism. Many have overcome illnesses or disabilities to raise thousands for charity.
. Some of the young ones are keeners at PE at school, some of them are inspirational PE teachers or sports club bods. Some of them in their 80s or 90s walk it, some of the younger ones get carried away in the moment and run too fast, forgetting to milk the moment.
For each of them it’s a moment they won’t forget, and seeing it unfold slowly on the live ‘torchcam’ on the internet is addictive, engaging stuff. Everywhere the roadshow trundles there’s flags waved and whooping crowds.
They cheer the old, the young, the black, brown and white, they cheer the wheelchair-bound, the fit, the chubby and the slim. All deserve it, and all are swept along by positivity and a sense of what unites us and not what divides us. And that’s why Mr Goebbels won’t like it.