Fiery spectacle leads to the Games


Torch: Thousands of people will have a hand in getting the Olympic flame to Salt Lake City.

January 21, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF WRITER

Thousands of people are carrying a torch for the Olympics -- 11,500 of them.

They carry it in sunshine, surrounded by cheering throngs, and in the snow and rain to the sounds of single encouraging voices. Past historic monuments. Down decaying urban streets.

On sneakers, skis, skates. By dogsled, horse-drawn sleigh and covered wagon. In kayaks, military vessels and jet airplane. Some torchbearers are celebrities. Most are everyday people, nominated by friends and family and selected from 210,000 entries.

The beginning

It all started with Zeus, the guest of honor at the Games in early Greece. A flame burned at the altar to the god to signal the beginning of competition; it was extinguished at the end.

In 1928, a caldron was lighted at the Games in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. By 1936, the Germans added the relay, with the torch traveling 12 days from Greece to Berlin.

After World War II, Olympics organizers turned to symbolism to show the peaceful nature of competition. At the 1948 Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the first torchbearer, dressed as a soldier, put down his weapon and removed his uniform to reveal athletic wear.

Lighted in Greece

The flame being used for the 2002 Games was lighted Nov. 19 in Olympia, Greece, the home of the Olympics. By tradition, it's supposed to be ignited by the sun's rays. But overcast skies made more modern devices necessary.

It was flown to Atlanta, where the 1996 Summer Games were held, and the relay began Dec. 4.

The "mother" flame was flown to Salt Lake City, while three "daughter" flames were placed in the vehicle caravan that accompanies the torchbearers.

During the relay, the flame is passing through other former Olympic sites: Lake Placid, N.Y. (1932 and 1980), Squaw Valley, Calif. (1960), and Los Angeles (1932 and 1984).

Each torchbearer carries the flame two-tenths of a mile, or about once around a football field.

It will take 65 days for the flame to travel 13,500 miles through 46 states, reaching Salt Lake City on Feb. 8 for the opening ceremonies. For the first time, the flame will pass through Alaska. But Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii will not bask in the warm Olympic glow.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had the most torchbearers (101,839). The 2000 Games in Sydney hauled the flame farther (37,500 miles) and longer (120 days).

Today, the flame travels from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to Reno, Nev. On Thursday, it flies from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska. (A map of the entire route can be found at )

Vital statistics

"Imagine breaking an icicle from the roof of a mountain chalet," says Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. "That's the simplicity of the torch."

The 3-pound tube of silver, copper and glass, designed by the Georgia Institute of Technology, looks like an icicle. It is 33 inches long, 3 inches wide at top and a half-inch wide at the bottom.

Although it looks cold on the outside, the inside is another matter. The flame burns at 2,000 degrees and is virtually immune to the elements, including temperature extremes, rain, snow, sleet and ice. It can burn in winds of up to 70 mph.

Do the locomotive

Volunteers will run with the torch 17 percent of the distance.

As with the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the flame is being transported by a custom-painted, 16-car train.

The Union Pacific train, with caldron on top, is hauling the flame 3,200 miles across 11 states.

But most of the time when the flame moves from city to city, it is carried in a copper-plated, stainless-steel caldron built into the back of a Chevy Avalanche.

Snuffed out?

"If the torch goes out while you're running, don't worry, just stop," keepers of the flame coach the runners. "Someone will be there immediately to relight it."

The "daughter" flames are kept in three miner's lanterns. Like President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the lanterns are kept apart for security reasons.

For the record, the flame has been prematurely extinguished three times. In 1976, a cigarette lighter was needed to jump-start things on the road to Montreal (it was quickly put out and officially lighted with the flame from the lantern). In 1984, it went out on the steps of the California state capitol. And recently in Tennessee, a small girl fell into a puddle and the light went out.

Oldest torchbearer

She started her trek in a wheelchair, but before Sarah McClelland reached the end, she was up in a walker, flashing a thumbs-up.

At 102, the woman from Xenia, Ohio, is believed to be the oldest torchbearer.

Last September, she fell in her home, breaking her shoulder in four places. She moved into an assisted-living center to recuperate, then fell again in November, breaking her hip.

But she vowed to walk in the relay and began training in the center's parking lot in a walker.

Ugly scenes

Upon learning that his home state was snubbed, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura described himself as "angered beyond belief."

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