Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Torch Memories: New Years in Erie

In honor of the current wave of Olympic-mania, I'm digging out these two columns from years ago when I had the treat of being part of the Winter Olympic torch run through Erie.

(News-Herald, December 2001) I’ve found myself part of an unexpected event or two in my lifetime. But nothing tops what’s coming up on New Year’s Day.

It was, as is often the case, a student who got me into this. Scott McCleary, now a Franklin High graduate, last spring noticed the Coke ads that invited folks to send in the name of someone in their town, so he did. And now, believe it or not, I’m going to be an Olympic torch bearer.

This has provided an interesting inside look at how this particular part of the extravaganza is put together.

I received a multipage form (registered mail) that asked a variety of useful questions (like, how well can I actually move under my own power) and bits of personal information. It also included lots and lots of directions and rules for me to keep in mind.

No, I could not have anyone run right along with me. Actually, someone will be running with me—they’re called Support Runners and they trot right along with the folks who do the carrying. Plus the security runners, plus the support van. I think I’m going to get to experience what it’s like to travel with an entourage.

I may not ride a scooter. I may not change my running route. More importantly, I cannot carry along any signs, insignias, logos, etc etc etc. No stapling a Leonardo’s menu to my forehead.

In fact, the Olympics (note to editor—check to see if we need the little copyright symbol to go with that) provide all torch bearers with an official running uniform, including shirt, pants, gloves and a hat. Shoes and socks are our responsibility.

I had half-expected the suit to carry a logo or two (Chevrolet is also sponsoring the torch run) but in fact there isn’t a commercial millimeter anywhere on it. It’s mostly white, with some tasteful Olympic logos, and some sort of blue jaggedly thing—it might be a stylized mountain. I’m not sure.

I get to keep the uniform. My corporate sponsors (it just gives me shivers to type that—I never had a corporate sponsor before) even purchased each Coke runner’s torch for them; I’m really not sure where I’m going to put mine yet. I don’t really have a room in the house that says “Olympic Torch.”

The torch run is very tech-savvy. There’s a web site where you can track the torch, read the stories of the various carriers, and see pictures from the various celebrations. There’s also an opportunity to buy lots of Olympic torch stuff. The flame, of course, has been on the road for weeks.

It is, frankly, one of the more humbling things I’ve ever been involved in. The torch has been carried by sports figures, celebrities, and people who have overcome tremendous hardship to become inspirations to their fellow-citizens. I’m pretty sure that Mario LeMieux, Diane Sawyer, the woman who gave her sister a kidney, and I are cut from somewhat different cloth.

But I look at it this way. I do think people from little out of the way areas like ours ought to be represented, and I think teachers ought to be represented, and I’ll be proud to carry it for all of us.

My leg will be in Erie on January 1 at 12:30ish, on West 6th Street from Colorado to Nevada Drive. My instructions assure me that nothing short of a hurricane will pre-empt the run. And while all the running I’ve been doing will be helpful, in actuality every torch bearer only carries the torch about two tenths of a mile (that’s roughly once across the 8th Street bridge). Even allowing for holding one arm steady instead of swinging it, I think I can manage.

The torch relay is a cool thing. We don’t pass the torch—we pass the flame. And there is something a bit mystical about that. After all, a flame isn’t really an object, a thing. The flame started in Atlanta and 45 states later what arrives in Salt Lake City won’t be the same object, exactly, and yet in some indescribable way it will.

Despite our increased technology, our accumulated wisdom, our growth over the centuries, a flame is still the best symbol we have for spirit. A flame cannot be captured, cannot be frozen in place; it can only survive by being fed and allowed to grow. There’s just something cool about this little piece of spirit moving from person to person across the face of the land.

I’ll be back next week with a full report.

(News-Herald, January 2002) Tuesday morning, while most of the world was blissfully (or painfully) slumbering, I was driving to Erie to keep my date with the Olympic torch.

I arrived a bit early; the weather was cold but better than expected, and I tend to show up early for important events, just in case my car is struck by meteorites or continental drift moves my destination. But an early arrival put me directly in line for the Girl Scout Photo Ops.

The torch-bearers convened in Erie city hall, as did the girl scout troops that were handing out American flags to attendees of the days’ events. The girl scouts wanted to have their pictures taken with torch type people, so a mail carrier from Union City and I filled the need for appropriately uniformed props.

The rest of the runners did eventually arrive. We were all greeted by Olympic torch relay officials, mostly twenty-something people who volunteer to spend a few months away from job, school, and/or home in return for the opportunity to see a big chunk of America, eat junk food, and live out of duffle bags. Not a bad trade.

Our host was named Steve. Steve just left a job that he’d had for about four years; after the Olympic Stuff is over, he’s headed for school in New York. Steve showed us how to handle the torch and told us the various logistics of the whole business.

It really is a well-honed science. We all piled onto a shuttle bus, which dropped us off, one at a time, at our designated spots.

Once I was deposited on my street corner, a man in the lovely official periwinkle and lapis uniform ran up and turned on the gas. Then the prior torchbearer ran up and lit my torch. Then a support runner reminded me to move my legs and lumber to the middle of the street, where I ran directly behind the big official picture-taking truck and tried to stay out of the slush.

A few blocks later, I lit the next person, and then the pick-up shuttle swept me up to return me to our starting point. All very neat and efficient.

Despite the large convoy of vehicles, I ran pretty much alone on the street except for my support runner. The torch is not really light, not really heavy. It really is a nicely crafted little piece of flaming sculpture. At last check, they were going for $1,200 on eBay.

There were plenty of people there. I definitely saw Scott McCleary, the student who got me into this in the first place, and members of my actual family. I know from later in the day that some of my students were there. And there were several people who spoke to me as if they knew me. I’ll admit to having been a bit overwhelmed by the moment. One woman asked me my name; it took me a second to answer her. Frankly, any of you can claim to have been there and I would never know the difference. It was a humbling experience.

Because of the nature of the set-up, the twenty or so of us on the out-of-Erie leg spent more than an hour together. Our group included an anchor guy from Channel 35 news, a retired school teacher who had lost part of her leg when hit by a car, a hockey coach who dedicated her run to two teen team members who died last year, and a woman who carried a torch in ’96. There was a man who will travel to Antarctica next month; after he runs a marathon there, he will be the twenty-fourth person in the world to run a marathon on every continent. I was technically the only Franklin resident there, but running just a bit further up the street from me was Cootie Harris, who may live in Meadville but certainly counts as a Franklinite in my mind. Oh, and there was also a sophomore from John Carroll who won gold and silver medals for swimming in the last Olympics. Did I mention that I felt humbled?

So I had the chance to feel like a part of history and to pass on a piece of something that has been carried by every sort of American imaginable. I had my picture taken more times than in the last ten years put together (not even counting all those girl scouts who will someday look back on this event and say, “Who was THAT guy, anyway?”) and I didn’t blow another New Years watching the Rose Parade in my pajamas. All in all, it was an excellent way to start a new year.

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