Playing With Fire

3 minute read

It was one of those invitations you accept instantly, then wonder what happened to the connection between your brain and lips. When the sponsors of the Olympic torch relay called to ask if I’d like to take a turn as a torchbearer in Greece, I leaped at the offer, only to spend the next month wondering how on earth I was going to fake running 500 m, holding aloft the Olympic flame. Not being one of nature’s athletes, I hadn’t run that far since school.

It didn’t help to know that there would be 10,999 other torchbearers between its lighting at the site of the ancient Olympics on March 25 and the opening ceremony on Aug. 13. I could be the one who dropped it, fell over with it, or let it go out. I knew it was a great privilege, but hadn’t appreciated the almost religious significance the flame has for Greeks. Three weeks ago in the ancient arena at Olympia where the first Games were held 2,780 years ago, the flame was kindled by the sun’s rays in a mirrored bowl. Some 6,000 normally voluble Greek spectators fell silent, many with tears in their eyes. Great. More pressure.

The great thing about the torch relay is that it embodies an authentic Olympic spirit: every color and religion, rich and poor, old and young, able and less able, famous and unknown, celebrating an ideal. The flame will touch more people than ever before, covering 78,000 km over 78 days, visiting five continents. My turn came on the day after the lighting ceremony, and I found myself on a cold, sunless, windy morning not far from the village of Dorion in the western Peloponnese. I stood at the side of a road lined with olive trees, mosaics of multicolored wildflowers, and a couple of goats. A convoy of TV trucks, motorbikes and sponsors’ cars approached. This was it. Embarrassment time.

But as I held up my torch to take the flame, something odd happened. A romantic might say that the spirit of the centuries gripped me. I suspect it was nothing more than a profound desire not to make a complete fool of myself. Either way, adrenaline took over and I found myself first jogging, then running, oblivious to everything but the flame. Anxious that the gas in the torch might sputter and go out, I remembered that the escort convoy carries spare torches and even a spare flame — taken from the original. Still, it was a relief to hand the precious responsibility over to the next runner.

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