CHRIS WOOD February 1 1988


CHRIS WOOD February 1 1988



The sight was unique in the annals of Olympic history. More than 8,065 km from Greece and 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, the Olympic flame arrived in Inuvik, N.W.T., last week—conveyed on a sled pulled by seven dogs decked out in sleigh bells. When the dog team came to a halt near Sir Alexander Mackenzie school, grinning torchbearer Janice Nikkei held the flame aloft. At the end of a brief ceremony, 1,500 people cheered and stamped their feet in biting -35°C cold. For Nikkei, a 23-year-old respiratory therapist who flew to Inuvik at her own expense from her home in Morden, Man., the seven-kilometre sled ride with the torch had fulfilled a dream. “I wanted to be part of Olympic history,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m so excited, I could fly.” The scene in Inuvik could not have been more removed from the sun-baked plains of southern Greece, ancient home

of the Olympic Games. But the open emotion that greeted the flame as it made its northernmost stop was typical of the reception it has had in dozens of communities across Canada. By the time the torch arrives in Calgary on Feb. 13 to light the Olympic cauldron, which will burn throughout the 16-day Winter Games, it will have completed a marathon daunting even by Olympic standards. The 18,000-km 88-day journey will set several records—as the longest Olympic relay ever attempted (in distance and duration), with the largest number of torchbearers and the most difficult weather.

Sharing: But more than the impressive number of firsts, it is the spirit of the relay that catches the imagination. What might have been a minor sideshow of the Games has become a phenomenon of its own. In communities from Newfoundland’s Placentia to Ontario’s Dryden and Saskatchewan’s Belle Plaine, Canadians have welcomed the torch with an astonishing outpouring of pride

and patriotism. Declared James Boyd, a former Olympic biathlete who carried the torch for a kilometre outside Whitehorse last week: “It is the sharing, the kinship, that mean so much. It kindles national pride.”

Cheered: On another level, the passing of the Olympic torch resonates with symbolism rooted deep in the human psyche. And while the torch became the target of a campaign to draw attention to the unsettled land claims of Alberta’s Lubicon Indians, there was no question that the relay has delivered on its primary mission—promoting a sense of people’s participation in the Calgary Games—with resounding success. Verna Firth, 20, expressed the thought well as she cheered the flame’s arrival in Inuvik last week. Said Firth, whose twin cousins, Shirley and Sharon, have competed in previous Olympics as cross-country skiers: “This is my Olympics.”

Many Canadians have gone to extraordinary lengths to take their

turns—awarded in a 1987 draw—carrying the torch for one kilometre of the cross-country relay. In one instance, 30year-old single mother Elizabeth Gray of Valhalla, Alta., sold some of the contents of her mobile home to help raise the $1,500 price of flying herself and her three sons to Prince Edward Island, where the family cheered the eldest boy, six-year-old Luke, along his kilometre of island blacktop. Declared Gray: “The effort was worth it. It was incredible for Luke.”

Convoy: And many spectators have gone to enormous lengths to celebrate the event. In Halifax, businessman John Angelopoulos arranged a welcome that included 15 costumed Greek folk dancers. Declared Angelopoulos: “The flame started from Olympia. We felt an obligation to show up.” Between communities, unscheduled escorts frequently join the run for kilometres at a time as it passes along the lonely roads that cross the vast emptiness of Canada. As the flame neared the Manitoba border in January, carried by a rider on a snowmobile modified for highway travel, a

group of standard machines appeared alongside, travelling in formation with the convoy on the snow-covered shoulders of the Trans-Canada Highway. But 10-year-old Brenda Bingham used ordinary leg power to accompany the flame through the northern night for the last eight kilometres of its run out of Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, last week. Said Brenda: “I just felt like being part of the flame and the Olympics.”

Drama: But the torch, now a familiar symbol of the Olympic Games, has not always had that association. Indeed, there is no evidence that torches played any role in the ancient Games. And they played no part when the modern version of the Games was constituted in 1896. Flames burned in Amsterdam and Los Angeles during the 1928 and 1932 Games, respectively. But the concept of a relay of runners to transport a flame from Olympia—the Greek birthplace of the Games—to an Olympic site did not make its appearance until the Berlin Summer Games of 1936. The Nazi sponsors of those Games organized a 12-day run from Greece to Germany by 3,000 torchbearers, provoking angry demonstrations in several countries along the route against rising German militarism. Still, the flame’s arrival infused the Games’ opening ceremony with unprecedented drama, and the idea stuck.

Ambitious: In 1976 a four-day run carried a flame into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium for that year’s Summer Games. But for Calgary’s Thomas Eason there was something wrong with the Montreal Games. “In 1976 I no more felt part of the Olympics than I could fly,” recalled Eason, project implementation manager for Petro-Canada Inc. Apart from events held at other specific sites, such as Kingston, Ont., and Bromont, Que., “they never took the Olympics out of the city,” he said. And he added that he was determined to avoid that perception when he agreed in 1985 to lead a Petro-Canada team of volunteers to plan a torch relay to Calgary. Declared Eason: “We wanted to reach as many people as possible.” In December, 1985, the Crown-owned oil company agreed to spend $5.5 million to put together the most ambitious relay in Olympic history (page 39).

As Eason began his task, he now recalls, some veteran organizers of the last North American Olympic relay— the 1984 Los Angeles run—told him that he was “nuts” to attempt the longer trip through a Canadian winter. But PetroCanada—while weathering some sug-

gestions that the purity of the Olympic flame has been tarnished by its commercial association with an oil company—has so far managed the daunting project efficiently. As the relay arrived in Vancouver at the end of last week on Day 68 of its 88-day schedule, it had covered 13,876 km with no major mishaps and without falling behind schedule.

That is a tribute to the 24 months of preparatory work by a full-time staff of 11 Petro-Canada employees. Planning for the 13-week run extended from the choice of a route—selected to bring the torch within reach of 90 per cent of Canadians—to the design of a logo, a flaming torch centred on a near-replica of the corporation’s signature Maple Leaf. Test drivers covered the route as many as four times to confirm distances and locate landmarks. In January, 1987, runners rehearsed for three days in win-

ter conditions in British Columbia. At the same time, orders were placed for 10,000 red-and-white tracksuits for the runners and more than 750 company volunteers.

Winds: Still, when the organizers invited Canadians early last year to enter a contest for the chance to carry the torch for one kilometre, they were not sure whether they would encounter apathy or skepticism. Not only would runners be required to pay their own way to whichever leg of the relay that they were assigned, the sponsors also warned potential applicants bluntly in a brochure that “there is the chance that you will be running up steep hills, on ice, in

deep snow, in strong winds, or in very cold weather.” Undaunted, Canadians flocked to Petro-Canada gas stations to pick up applications—and sent in an astounding 6.7 million of them.

Many would-be runners applied dozens of times in an attempt to assure themselves a place. “We burned a lot of gas,” recalled Jeannie Coleman of Wilmot, P.E.I., who crisscrossed the island province collecting applications on behalf of her husband, Ivan. In the end, the organizers selected 6,520 torch carriers from among the applicants, then designated 251 people to run on behalf of such groups as the handicapped, former Olympians and native Canadians.

Sun: The odyssey began in Olympia on Nov. 15 with the ceremonial lighting of the flame of the 1988 Winter Games. Greek actresses dressed as priestesses entered the crumbling ruins of the temple of Hera, and emerged with a flame kindled from the sun’s rays focused in a concave mirror. In fact, because the skies were overcast, the flame had not just been lit—it was one saved from the previous day’s rehearsal. Later in the day Greek officials formally handed the flame to Canadian organizers. They in turn used it to light three brass miner’s lamps, which they placed aboard a Canadair Challenger jet for the overnight flight to Canada. (To make sure that the actual Olympic flame would not be extinguished accidentally, the organizers have since used it to light 11 lamps that are kept burning constantly—nine in the escort vehicles and two in Calgary.)

Spirit: The Canadian relay began on Nov. 17 amid fireworks, blowing snow and freezing temperatures on windy Signal Hill in St. John’s, Nfld. Several hundred people, most of them schoolchildren, clutched balloons and Canadian flags and listened to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney declare, “Let the spirit of the Games begin here on the shores of Newfoundland.” And by the end of last week, the flame had visited nine provinces, both northern territories and two coasts. In addition to last week’s stint on a dogsled, it has travelled by wheelchair, snowmobile, helicopter, ferry and jet. In Regina, cross-country skiers and skaters took the torch for a turn on frozen Wascana Lake. After crossing British Columbia from west to east, the flame will make a sweep around Alberta before ending its journey at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium on Feb. 13.

The Olympic torch has not entirely

skirted controversy during its transcontinental odyssey. Appearances in several cities were dogged by small bands of demonstrators trying to call attention to the unsettled claim of Lubicon Indians to 90 square miles in northern Alberta. In one protest, Lubicon supporters mocking the relay motto, “Share the

Flame,” disrupted Winnipeg’s welcome for the torch with calls of “Share the Blame.” And last week the eight members of the Northwest Territories’ cabinet boycotted the flame’s arrival in Yellowknife. They were protesting against what N.W.T. Sports Minister Gordon Wray called the “insensitivity” of the

relay’s organizers who, he said, failed to make sure that enough natives had roles in the northern laps of the run.

But the complaints have been few. The charges of commercialism have largely bypassed Petro-Canada, landing instead at the sneaker-clad feet of runners who have offered to sell the souve-

nir tracksuits provided free by the relay sponsor. James Fitzpatrick, 34, of Thunder Bay, Ont., for one, ran an ad in a Toronto newspaper last week asking $18,000 for his red-and-white suit, valued by its manufacturer at $150. The offer horrified fellow torchbearer Alice McNeil. “I think it’s absolutely outra-

geous,” protested McNeil, 42, a Toronto lingerie shop owner.

Even the accidental hitches have so far been minor. On several occasions high winds have extinguished the flame—which has been promptly reignited from one of the miner’s lamps carried in an escort van. A dozen or so

torches have been damaged en route, but the convoy is equipped with about 20 spares. On most days at least one runner fails to appear for an allotted kilometre—but the distance is made up by one of the volunteer Petro-Canada employees in the convoy.

And Canadians’ enthusiasm for the

flame shows no sign of flagging. In Amherst, N.S., townspeople held a parade with 13 floats dramatizing Olympic themes on the day of the flame’s arrival. In Montreal, real estate company president Stephen Leopold footed the bill to bus 41 employees to Rivière-du-Loup, Que., where 10 of them ran with the

flame. Said Leopold, who also treated the group to dinner and a night in Rivière-du-Loup’s best hotel: “I felt like the proud father watching his children participate in the Olympics.” In Toronto, theatre director Paul Thompson joined forces with former international runner Bruce Kidd to produce a play, The

Games of Winter, about Olympic competition; the production toured Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the wake of the torch.

In Manitoba’s Interlake region, 10 small communities bypassed by the flame responded with a relay of their own torch—conducted by dogsled. In Calgary, Arthur and Irene Nieuwdorp have made almost 500,000 candles modelled on the torch. Sold through local Lions clubs along the relay route, the candles raise money for amateur youth athletics. And in Vancouver, Whitecap Books has received orders for 75,000 copies of a pictorial history of the relay, titled Share the Flame. Prepared by Vancouver-based Murray/Love Productions Inc., the 224-page book is already half completed and will roll off the presses before the Games end on Feb. 28.

‘Sacred’: The flame relay has clearly provided a rallying point for the country’s often subdued sense of patriotism. Many participants have described their emotions in terms more familiar in a church or synagogue than alongside a highway. After travelling with the torch for 25 days, Petro-Canada spokesman William Simpkins observed that many runners treated the Olympic flame “as if it was sacred.” Elated runner Trevor Tucker, 23, of Calgary, who carried the torch near Kenora, Ont., blurted out, “It’s like holding the hand of God.”

At the least, the torch relay is one Olympic event in which anyone with sufficient heart is welcome. From that starting point it has struck a deep response from millions of observers. One unlooked-for result may be that, for many Canadians, the Winter Games themselves almost risk becoming a postscript to the passing of the torch—an event that many have already proudly claimed as uour Olympics.”