Holding a torch

IMG_0533Today the Olympic torch came to my (new) home town, giving me, for the second time in my life, a once in a lifetime opportunity to see it.

It is now 12 years since I stood at the bottom of Oxford Street in Sydney for a couple of hours before witnessing a tracksuit-clad person shuffling by, torch held proudly aloft.

In truth, I can’t recall a great deal about that day apart from the fact that I was there to see it. What I can remember however, is feeling glad that I had made the effort to go along, primarily due to the sheer goodwill that this simple ritual managed to create amongst the people of Sydney.

It also helped to dispel any remaining cynicism or foreboding I may personally have harboured about the upcoming Games. I left that Sydney roadside with a sense that the Olympics were finally here and I was determined to immerse myself fully and enjoy every minute of them. Which I certainly did.

Fast forward 12 years and here I am again, this time standing beside the road in Lewes in East Sussex, ready to be part of Day 59 of the torch’s 70 day odyssey around Great Britain. So how did it compare to Sydney? I hear you ask (or if you didn’t, I’ll tell you anyway)

Well, firstly it also engendered a truly positive feeling. No doubt this was aided by a rare day of pleasant weather, but the crowds were out in force.

And for a town that has a reputation for being a bit ‘right on’ (in a leftish kind of way), there was a universally upbeat atmosphere. No protests, no killjoys, no boat-race type buffoons, no noses being looked down, just a wide cross-section of townsfolk lining the route, smiling, having picnics, chatting to friends and strangers alike and generally having a good time.

Indeed I heard someone beside me say to her friend “I wouldn’t have expected Lewes to get behind it so much”, which I think was intended as a compliment. So, atmosphere-wise, a big tick

In terms of the relay itself…well it was a game of two halves and the first half was sickening.

It began with a procession of corporate ‘party buses’ making their way along the picturesque street, music blaring out and all carrying a bunch of carefully selected dancers, wearing company T-shirts and gyrating away on the top deck, whilst waving to the crowd.

What is that all about? Sorry guys, I don’t care how ‘hot’ you look, I haven’t come here to see a load of corporate flunkies, let alone sink to the depths of waving back.

Some morons even had microphones through which they uttered banalities like “You having a good time Lewes?”. We will as soon as you move on buddy.

And not content with leading out the procession, some of these corporate sponsors couldn’t resist the opportunity to give out stuff as well.

For example, some bright spark at Samsung decided it would be a good idea to hand out thousands of those funny inflatable tube things that you blow up and bang together to make a noise (I dare say they  have a name). Heavily branded, of course.

Only problem being that all the ones my kids received ended up deflating after a couple of bangs due to them being of very poor quality. Memo to sampling department – poor quality freebies do not help overall perceptions of brand quality, nor do streets littered with (branded) flaccid plastic after the crowds have gone.

I don’t recall the Sydney relay being over-run by sponsors, so assume this is how the creeping hand of commercialism is taking over the spirit of the Games. A shame since it does the sponsors no credit whatsoever in my eyes.

But then, as I was struggling to keep down the bile, came the balm that was the second half of the relay.

A simple police escort and a lone runner in a white tracksuit, flanked by grey-clad chaperones (or maybe they were pace-makers to ensure she stayed on schedule) and a simple tour bus bringing up the rear.

The runner on my stretch was young and seemed almost to float over the ground, such was the pride and honour she clearly felt as she completed her leg of the relay. The crowd beamed with pleasure and the cheers were loud as she loped along the high street.

Once she had transferred her flame to the next runner, she boarded the back-up bus to join the other runners who had already completed their legs and I saw the sheer joy in their expressions as they congratulated the latest entrant to the torch relay hall of fame.

That brief moment of human joy, no doubt replicated up and down the land, summarised why to me the torch relay is worth holding and the Olympics are worth having.

Sure, things will go wrong over the next few weeks (and certain people inside and outside the media will delight in the schandenfreude), but having witnessed the mood on the street today, I reckon the silent majority will embrace the Games as they have the relay, with pleasure and optimism.

It happened in Sydney and I fully expect it will happen in Britain too.

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