Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pass the Torch... Here...!

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

ATHENS — Some believe the 2010 Olympic Games won't begin until Feb. 12, when the opening ceremonies are held at BC Place Stadium. Others say it begins earlier than that.

They believe it begins at 2 a.m. Thursday, when 10 hours and thousands of kilometres away in Olympia, Greece, actresses performing as priestesses will gather in the Temple of Hera and use the sun's rays to light the Olympic flame in the bowl of a parabolic mirror.

The culmination of years of planning, the spark of light in many ways signifies the end of the six-year organizing period and the start of the 2010 Games. By now, organizing committees like Vanoc are supposed to have everything finished and simply be able to wait for the celebrations to begin.

"It is the moment when Canadians will start to get excited about the Olympics like never before," said Nicola Kettlitz, spokesman for Coca-Cola's Olympic Project Team. "It happens every time. Once the torch is lit people start to get excited about it."

In Greece, the excitement is building already. Thursday's event marks the first time in history that the Olympic cultural ceremony for the lighting of a winter torch will be held in the "ancient stadium" in Olympia, the cradle of the Games.

While all Olympic flames are lit in the Temple of Hera, winter cultural ceremonies have in the past been held in another area called "De Coubertin's Grove," named for the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre De Coubertin. The summer ceremonies are held in the original stadium.

Jim Richards, director of torch relays for the Vancouver Organizing Committee, said Vanoc appealed to the Hellenic Olympic Committee to change the location.

"We went back to them and talked to them about the goals of our relay, and why holding the cultural festivities in the ancient stadium would be right. It was a real priority for us," he said. "They graciously agreed."

After the flame is lit, the torch will begin an eight-day journey around Greece. It will then be handed over to Vanoc on Oct. 29 to begin a 10-hour flight back to Victoria, where the first of 12,000 torchbearers will start the 106-day relay covering every province and territory, from west to north to east and finally home again to Vancouver.

Guests at the lighting will include Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean; B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell; Renata Wielgosz, Canada's ambassador to Greece; Gary Lunn, Canada's minister of state for sport; and several B.C. mayors, including Vancouver's Gregor Robertson. The IOC will be represented by president Jacques Rogge and Rene Fasel, chairman of the Vancouver Coordination Commission.

Richards said the process of repatriating the flame back to Canada is, in one sense, very simple, and in another very complex. It's as straightforward as taking it on board an aircraft and flying it home (although Vanoc did have to apply for a special exemption from Transport Canada in order to carry an open flame on a jet). And yet it's difficult because the flame needs extraordinary care.

Housed in a modified miner's lamp, it is fuelled with regular lighter fluid, but needs to be tended carefully. At any time there are at least three flames — a "mother" and two "daughters" — all of which are meant as insurance against the unthinkable catastrophe of a flame actually going out.

Ensuring the flame is lit — and stays lit — is of highest priority for organizers. In fact, the 2010 flame already has been lit, just in case weather doesn't cooperate Thursday and clouds mar the sky. The Hellenic Olympic Committee performed a lighting several days ago, when the sun was shining brightly, and kept aside at least one flame for insurance. Nature is fickle and doesn't perform to the commands of nations or the International Olympic Committee.

"The HOC has already done several test lightings just in case the weather cools," Richards said. "But they tell us they expect it to be sunny on the day of the ceremony."

Once the ceremonial flame is successfully lit, the "backup" flame will be extinguished.

During the relay, Richards said Vanoc will have 10 lanterns in operation, just in case something goes wrong.

Never in the history of the modern Olympic movement has a torch been fully extinguished, although Canada registered one embarrassing moment when the cauldron for the 1976 Montreal Summer Games went out. A helpful bystander re-lit the cauldron with a cigarette lighter, causing consternation for the organizers. It was extinguished and re-lit with one of the Olympic flames kept on standby.

A cautious approach is also being taken in the area of security. Greek officials are hoping to avoid a repeat of the last lighting ceremony in 2008, when pro-Tibet protesters and others tried to disrupt the relay for the Beijing Summer Games. From the start of the ceremony in Olympia, the international portion was dogged with protesters who tried to douse the flame. Protests were particularly fierce in London, Paris and San Francisco, leading the International Olympic Committee to ban future organizers from conducting international relays.

As a result, the Vancouver flame will travel through Greece and then immediately be taken to Canada. An early plan for a refuelling stop in France that would allow the flame to be taken to Vimy Ridge — where Canada marked its bloody involvement in the First World War — was cancelled due to concern it would be seen as an international tour.

Even so, Vanoc and its security wing, the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, are bracing for protests from a small but disparate group of people united under several banners, including native rights, anti-poverty, anti-globalization and environmental extremism. Vanoc has already encountered some of these protests in the past at countdown celebrations and public meetings.

While they are prepared for limited protests, the atmosphere here Tuesday was one of excitement.

The Hellenic Olympic Committee announced Monday that Vassilis Dimitriadis — a Greek giant slalom star who participated in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Winter Games — will be the first torchbearer. Toronto student Niki Georgiadou will be the last, carrying the torch into the Panathenian Stadium for the handover ceremony.

In between, the torch will travel through 22 districts, 42 municipalities, three municipal districts and one community. Organizers will conduct 36 lighting ceremonies, including two at archeological sites.

For Canada, the Greek leg of the relay will be a relatively small affair. After the lighting and before the handover, Vanoc won't have any regular staff on site. The sole Canadian representative will be Konstantinos Kastigiannis, Vanoc's "ambassador" and president of the Canadian-Greek Chamber of Commerce in Athens.

But it's still the 2010 flame. And in less than 10 days, it will come home. Let the Games begin.

Read Jeff Lee's Olympics blog at

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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