Olympic torchbearers trot into spotlight Ordinary 'heroes' carry flame in Md.

June 20, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Outside an auto body shop on the west side of Elkton, a 27-year-old program director for the local YMCA had his moment in the sun -- had there been any.

At 3: 18 p.m., Andy Dearing held the Olympic flame. Bystanders cheered and cameras clicked as he lifted his torch and trotted down the street. Children ran with him. Police on motorcycles provided an official escort.

Three minutes later, it was over. After lighting the next runner's torch, his bright orange flame was doused, and he could only marvel at his brush with athletic history.

"It's great," said Dearing, made breathless more by excitement than exertion. "The reception you get -- just terrific. I was a celebrity for a minute."

And so it went over and over yesterday as fairly ordinary people, most of whom have never attended an Olympic game let alone competed in one, got a chance to have their small connection to next month's summer games.

Yesterday was Day 54 of the flame's 84-day relay from Olympia, Greece, to Atlanta. Beginning in Cecil County at 2: 45 p.m., a 23-vehicle convoy began its two-day trek across Maryland, one of 43 states the flame will have traveled by the time the games begin July 19.

For many participants, it was an overwhelming experience -- and not just because of the flame's symbolism or the goodwill it inspires. They also were witness to an impressive public relations juggernaut, a rolling promotion for corporate sponsors Coca-Cola, BMW, and Holiday Inn to name a few.

"You try not to notice, but I guess they pay the freight," said William Garrett, 59, a Baltimore torchbearer who was careful not to wear "promotional" clothing only to see the Coca-Cola logo splashed across most everything else around him.

Even elected officials had limited opportunity to barge into the act. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 16-year-old son, Raymond, was rejected as a torchbearer to avoid political overtones, an organizer said.

About 200 torchbearers were selected to carry the flame through Maryland. Most were "community heroes," volunteers chosen by sponsor United Way for special recognition. Many others were selected by a write-in contest held by Coca-Cola.

The bearers didn't have to run, although most did. Some bicycled longer distances. A few walked. They were as young as 13, and much older. Today, 100-year-old Sydell Laskowitz of Rockville, the eldest torchbearer in the country, is scheduled to carry the flame.

"We wanted to share the spirit of the Olympics with all Americans," said Katherine E. Whiting, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman. "The communities don't necessarily know about these people and the good deeds they've done."

In Aberdeen, the flame was picked up by Deborah C. Grubb, a longtime activist for the blind. She and her guide dog, Libby, began their brief, three-tenths of a mile trot with destiny outside an auto parts store.

"I wanted to make a statement," said Grubb, 48, president of the state chapter of the American Council for the Blind. "The Olympics are a team concept, and I wanted to show that we can contribute to the team like everybody else."

Nearby, Dwayne "Buzz" Williams was disappointed. He was thrilled to handle the flame, but wished he could have held it longer than the few minutes it takes to run a half-kilometer, the distance most torchbearers were asked to cover.

"I used to think this was no big deal," said Williams, a teacher who works with youngsters with emotional and behavioral problems at the Kennedy-Krieger School in Baltimore. "When you get involved, you realize what a big deal it is."

The flame's biggest celebration was reserved for Baltimore. Hundreds braved a soaking rain to watch the flame arrive shortly after 11 p.m. by boat across the Inner Harbor at the Harborplace Amphitheater.

But Havre de Grace (pop. 10,000) may have generated the most excitement as measured on a per capita basis.

Initially slated to be bypassed, town leaders persuaded organizers to steer downtown, where they were met yesterday afternoon by a parade, three bands and a giant balloon arch along a banner-lined boulevard welcoming the flame.

"The realization sunk in that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for Havre de Grace, maybe the only time ever," said Mayor Gunther Hirsch, a retired physician.

Before the torchbearers could do their thing, they were treated to a brief lecture on flame history and etiquette. They learned, for instance, that yesterday's rain couldn't extinguish the Olympic flame -- the propylene torches were designed to withstand it. Besides, four lighted lanterns are kept as backups.

Each participant got to keep his or her torch -- for a $275 fee, check or credit card. The torches, molded aluminum designed to look like a cluster of reeds bound by twine, survived only slightly scorched. Runners got to keep their uniforms, white shorts and T-shirts for free.

After a one-night stay at the Holiday Inn Inner Harbor (organizers declined to reveal a room number for security reasons, but future travelers can look for the commemorative plaque), the flame will spend Day 55 traveling from Camden Yards to Annapolis and then to Washington.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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