It had none of the bombast of an opening ceremony, not a hint of inflated self-importance, but as the Paralympic flame was lit on Tuesday night in the village of Stoke Mandeville, northwest of London, the spiritual home of the disabled sport movement, there was certainly no shortage of pride.
The four national flames that had been lit with flints on the highest peaks of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, came together on a modest stage in the center of a running track to form the Paralympic flame, and mark the start of a 24-hour torch relay which was to end with the torch arriving at the Olympic Stadium in time for the Paralympics opening ceremony.
In front of a vocal crowd of 3,000 locals, dignitaries and former sporting stars the flames came together last night in a steel cauldron, before being carried to the National Spinal Injuries Unit in the adjacent Stoke Mandeville hospital and starting the journey to London.
Former winner of the TV talent show X Factor Joe McElderry did a cheery job at getting the crowd of flag-waving enthusiasts dancing before the arrival of the flames, but there was a hush of respect when Eva Loeffler, the daughter of Ludwig Guttmann — founder of the Paralympic movement who set up the first National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville — took to the stage.
“Who could have known that lighting a spark in the hearts, minds and bodies of Paralympians would grow to be the amazing sporting spectacle we are about to witness,” she said. “It is so right and fitting that Stoke Mandeville has been chosen as the starting line for the Paralympic torch relay for London 2012.”
Sebastian Coe, who received a huge cheer from the crowd, said there was no other place for the lighting of the Paralympic flame.
“It’s been a long time coming — seven years for our teams at LOCOG [London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games], but 64 years since the passion and drive of Ludwig Guttmann signposted this extraordinary journey we have all been on,” he said. “It is simply not possible to stand here without feeling a mountainous debt of gratitude for one of the world’s great visionaries.”
They watched as four national flames were carried into the stadium by eight torchbearers, among them English flame carrier Katie Piper, who became a campaigner for burns victims after suffering horrific injuries when her ex-boyfriend threw sulphuric acid in her face.
Special Constable Darren Ferguson, carrying the Northern Irish flame, was nominated for talking a distressed man down from a bridge; Julie Gilbert and Marsha Wiseman carried the Welsh flag for championing disabled people in the workplace; Jonjo Look carried the Scottish flame in recognition of his fight to walk again using a prosthetic leg.
The Paralympic flame traveled past some of London’s most famous landmarks yesterday.
Cheers and prayers met the torch as it arrived at the Shree Swaminarayan Hindu temple in northwest London, before heading eastward toward the Olympic Stadium on a route that included Piccadilly Circus and Westminster Abbey.
Crowds also lined the streets, cheering and waving flags, as the torchbearers carried the flame down Abbey Road, the street immortalized by The Beatles.
Torchbearers recreated the band’s famous pose on the zebra crossing that appears on the cover of their 1969 album Abbey Road.