Sat, Jun 23, 2012 - Page 20 News List

Olympic torch relay becomes cultural happening in UK


Spectators have stood in the rain and wind, in doorways and on sidewalks, along country lanes and beside superhighways, just hoping for a glimpse of a lone runner, torch in hand, flame held high.

Britain’s Olympic torch relay has drawn huge crowds as it winds its way to every corner of the country ahead of its showcase moment at the July 27 Games opening ceremony in London. Yesterday, it was halfway through its 70-day journey, traveling within 16km of 95 percent of the British population.

“It’s one of the few areas [where] people can reach out and touch the games almost literally,” said Ian Henry, the director for Olympic Studies and Research at Loughborough University. “It’s the way to give their enthusiasm some concrete expression.”

It has been on horseback. It has traveled on a balloon. It has been on boats, planes, trains. It has been carried by Olympians and Paralympians, singers and dancers, police officers and firefighters. The queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips shared honors with James Winter, a 40-year-old milkman from Chard who was nominated for delivering, no matter the weather.

If the Beijing torch relay set up the 2008 Summer Games as China’s coming-out party on an international stage, London’s relay is setting up Britain as the community Olympics.

The English are normally too inhibited and squeamish to make a big fuss about anything — except sport, Kate Fox, the author of Watching the English, wrote in a British Airways survey on the games.

“Big sporting events such as the London 2012 games provide an antidote to what I call social dis-ease — a temporary remission from what I call our usual cynical Eeyeorishness, an excuse to shed some of our inhibitions and be a bit more emotive or demonstrative,” she said.

Organizers of the London Olympics assumed that the world would be excited about the London Games. However, they were worried about what people in Britain would think — particularly given that Brits are often a cynical lot and proud of it, thank you.

There is also the fact that so much activity is focused on Olympic Park in London. There had to be some sense that other parts of the country were involved — that the Olympics also belonged to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So instead of being international, the London Games focused on local heroes. All over the country, people have been touched. In one community, Worcester, 70,000 people — out of a population of 93,300 — turned up for the celebratory lighting of the cauldron after the run.

Some of the torchbearers who have participated so far have put their torches up for sale on eBay. Organizers got into the act this week, setting up a torch auction featuring one used by soccer star David Beckham when the flame arrived in Britain last month after being lit in Greece.

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