Olympic buzz takes off: London welcomes the flame

By Danica Kirka

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 8:04 a.m. MDT

"Both the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics are like carnivals or tribal festivals," Kate Fox, the author of "Watching the English," wrote in a British Airways survey on the games. "We behave in ways we wouldn't normally behave — dancing in the streets and waving flags and shouting and cheering and indulging in other wildly disinhibited acts, such as maybe even talking to strangers."

Britons were even more committed to the flame before the last London Olympics in 1948, when the torch was actually run in a relay from the site of ancient Olympia in Greece. Janie Hampton, author of "The London Olympics: 1908 and 1948," said runners traveled continuously day and night, traveling along the way through two countries — Greece and Italy— engulfed in civil war. Crowds emerged to see the 1948 flame even in the middle of the night.

In Britain it was such a draw that police outriders had to push people back as the flame neared the stadium for its showcase moment of lighting the cauldron, Hampton said.

'There is one event in the Games which has captured the imagination — the carrying of the lighted torch from distant Olympia to the Stadium at Wembley," The Times newspaper wrote on July 28, 1948. "We think of the torch's journey, passed from hand to hand, crossing the boundary of one country after another ...The torch itself, quite apart from its symbolism, is something which, like a lance or a banner, a coat of mail or a jerkin of Lincoln green we can love purely for its own sake. It has a somber glory."

This time the flame has been to every corner of the United Kingdom ahead of its showcase moment at the Olympics' July 27 opening ceremony. On Friday it will be on day 63 of its 70-day journey that has included travel on boats, planes, horses and hot air balloons. It's been carried by Olympians and Paralympians. The queen's granddaughter, Olympic equestrian competitor Zara Phillips, has shared the honor with 84-year-old Moira Starkey, who walks with two canes and was honored for completing a marathon last year by walking around her town hall 1,876 times to raise money for charity.

If the Beijing relay set up the 2008 Summer Games as China's coming-out party on an international stage, London's relay has set up Britain as the community Olympics — not flashy or dashy, not big or spectacular, but warm and well attended.

Organizers had always assumed the world would be excited about the games but were not sure what people in Britain would think — particularly given taxpayers will be paying 9.3 billion pounds ($14.7 billion) to host the event at a time of economic austerity.

There's 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.

But the numbers — some 9 million people have viewed the torch so far — forced city planners further down the route to keep rethinking their plans. Britain has had to pour more money into crowd-control plans for London during the Olympics after acknowledging that it underestimated the crowds that would turn out to see the flame.

Whether they are coming just because it is a local happening, or because people are moved by the fairy dust of the games, it's hard to say. A torch leg features sponsor buses blaring music, streamers and tambourines, cheerleaders shouting things like "Go torchbearer!" cameras and media.

It's not really clear how the capital will respond to the hoopla. This is a place where major events happen with some frequency.

But one thing is for sure. Flame(equals)Olympics.

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