Touched by the flame

Reactions to the Olympic torch are remarkably intense

Touched by the flameThe Vancouver Island community of Coombs, B.C., is one of those eccentric wide spots in the road that elevate a Canadian road trip to an adventure. There’s a flea market, an army surplus store, a tiny amusement park—and that store with the goats on the roof. It was here, to Coombs, and specifically to the goat-filled sod roof of the Old Country Market, where the Olympic flame came calling on a sunny Sunday morning. It was stop five of Day Three of its 106-day, 45,000-km cross-Canada odyssey. Since its arrival in Victoria on a military jet from Athens last Friday it has already experienced ignition anxiety issues, protests, delays, diversion and heavy weather. It has been jeered at, cheered and teared at. But by the time it hit Coombs, and indeed well before, this $32-million relay had hit its stride.

It was quite a parade. First down Highway 4A came Happy 1 and Happy 2, custom-built vehicles, which torch-run sponsor Coca-Cola filled with music and shiny, bouncy people. Then came Loonie and Toonie, the support vehicles for co-sponsors RBC. The crowd was already primed with free Coke products in collector-edition bottles, and blue RBC tambourines. Then came the police. Lots of police. And finally, surrounded by yet more security, came a beaming Dave Johnson of Seattle–—a Nortel employee seconded to the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC)—chugging into the outskirts of Coombs with the torch held high. He was greeted like a rock star by a crowd of several hundred, as he handed off the flame to one of the happy handful of other torchbearers, some of whom carried the flame onto the roof.

The goats, jaded and much-photographed tourist attractions, seemed indifferent. Not so Johnson, who calls the flame a symbol of peace, international co-operation and excellence, and who offered his spent torch to any and all who wished to hold it. Equally pumped was 18-year-old Mohsen Kheari of Victoria, who had long ago submitted his request to be a bearer to the Coke website. Like most runners, he paid $350 to keep it. He’ll display the torch in his bedroom. But first he was headed back to his afternoon hockey game in Victoria to show his teammates. “They’re really a nice bunch of guys,” he says. “If anything, they deserve this torch as much as I do.” As for the Olympics themselves, which start in Vancouver Feb. 12 with the flame’s scheduled arrival—come hell or high water, and probably both—“it’s going to be a beautiful three weeks,” he says.

The flame stopped in Coombs for just nine minutes, one of 13 stops on that day’s 240-km trek. Down the road, it was guest of honour at a rollicking celebration in Port Alberni, a sports-mad community that sent 64 people to the Beijing Olympics in support of local wrestler and firefighter Travis Cross, who, of course, carried the torch. In Tofino that evening, it rode a surfboard in the capable hands of local legend Raph Bruhwiler, who later pronounced the dicey exercise, after one false start in crashing waves, “a piece of cake.”

On Saturday, the flame had entered Khowutzun, the Cowichan tribal lands outside Duncan. There to greet it was Chief Lydia Hwitsum. She wore a towering hat of woven cedar, and stood in high leather boots with stiletto heels. Like many in the crowd, she wore a hand-knit Cowichan wool sweater. A point was being made. Hers was a gift from her mother when she graduated from law school. On its back her mother, Amelia, knitted two orcas, carriers of knowledge and history.

It was only the day before when the chief helped broker a deal with VANOC and the Hudson’s Bay Company to include genuine Cowichan sweaters in its Olympic stores, to supplement a sanctioned line of sweaters that borrow heavily from the tribal design. The knock-offs were a “slap in the face” to knitters like Martina Wilson, 52, who has been crafting wool since she was nine years old, or the chief’s mother, who is 85, and has been knitting for 60 years. With the torch approaching, and public sympathy with the band, the deal averted a major embarrassment for VANOC and the Bay. As the chief put it, this was a chance to “get the attention of the corporations that are benefiting significantly economically from the Olympics and try to channel some microeconomic opportunity to Cowichan knitters and families.” The Olympics are a short-term benefit. A secondary deal will see the Bay “engage in a longer-term opportunity with Cowichan knitted sweaters and products,” she says.

Hwitsum is a great fan of the “healthy competition” the Olympics represent. It would seem hardball is her sport of choice.

Saturday night was Halloween, and thousands attended an elaborate community celebration at a waterfront park further up island in Nanaimo. There were sponsor giveaways and booths where you could be photographed holding an Olympic torch. There were the inevitable speeches. There was a local band and hip-hop group, and a Coke-sponsored acrobatic act that included two spandexed young women performing contortions that might well be illegal in several southern U.S. states.

The greatest cheer was reserved for Paralympic gold medallist Michelle Stilwell, who rolled through the throng with the torch attached to her wheelchair to light the cauldron on stage. For six-year-old Honor Thaagaard it was an inspiring end to an evening that could have been a big disappointment. Her parents had vetoed trick-or-treating for fear of the H1N1 virus. “We don’t want to go to too many public places,” said her mother, Louise, “but we couldn’t miss this.” Honor stood on a garbage can and squealed with delight as the torch arrived. To Louise, it represents a message she wants her children to appreciate. “It gives somebody a goal to aspire to. If you dream big, you can do big things.”

There are 1,037 stops and 12,000 torchbearers on the relay itinerary, and many, many dreams. The flame is a catalyst: a constant that triggers the chemistry of those it touches. These reactions are remarkably intense, though some are prettier than others.

There was a touching, if anxious moment, as the flame arrived at the grounds of the B.C. legislature Friday morning. The Olympic cauldron was to be lit on live television by John Furlong, the CEO of VANOC, and Darlene Poole, the widow of Jack Poole, who was the architect of Vancouver’s winning bid and chairman of the organizing committee. Poole had died a week earlier of pancreatic cancer, within hours of the flame being lit in Greece. For almost a minute, Furlong and Darlene stood with frozen smiles, rolling the flame atop the cauldron before it finally sputtered into life. “It felt like 30 minutes,” conceded VANOC executive vice-president David Cobb, who insists there is a backup plan for every contingency. “Yes,” muttered communications head Renée Smith-Valade. “Pray.”

The burning anxiety extended to several of Canada’s iron-willed top athletes. The first two Olympic medallists to carry the torch on Friday, speed skater Catriona Le May Doan and triathlete Simon Whitfield, admitted their hearts skipped when their torch gave an unsettling “clunk” before bursting into flame. “Is it broken?” wondered Whitfield. “We didn’t want to do anything wrong,” added Le May Doan. Silken Laumann, the epitome of grace under pressure during her storied rowing career, says she was frantically searching for the “key guy,” the man who accompanies the runners to unlock the torch’s fuel supply. “When you actually reach to the next torch,” she says, “there’s that split-second fear: oh my gosh, what if it doesn’t light?”

Far more stressful for Victoria police and relay security was Friday’s Anti-Olympic Festival and a subsequent “Zombie March.” It drew some 300-400 demonstrators to protest the Olympics’ “enhancement of capitalism, colonization and social control.” They represented causes, from Aboriginal rights to the seal hunt, to student debt, health cutbacks, inadequate housing and poverty—all better priorities, they said, for the billions of Olympic spending. Their evening march snarled downtown traffic and caused torch security to divert from the route at one point, costing 10 torchbearers the chance to run their routes. Marbles were scattered on the street in an apparent attempt to trip up the nine mounts of the Vancouver police horse squad who were in Victoria for crowd control.

The marchers converged on the grounds of the legislature, where, outnumbered by the thousands attending the rain-soaked celebrations, they chanted slogans, banged drums and tried to drown out a children’s choir. Later, with an escort of police determined to keep a lid on things, they marched away, shouting, “This is what democracy looks like.” Most of those approached by Maclean’s refused to give their names.

This reporter recalled speaking with Jack Poole more than six years ago, before Vancouver won the Games. He called such anti-Olympic protesters the No People. “I don’t like the No People,” he said flatly. “Why not be for something?” he asked. “Take that energy and be for something rather than against something.” Poole was wealthy, and undeniably a capitalist, all those things the zombie marchers decry. But he was also part Cree. He grew up poor. He built more affordable housing in Vancouver than most anyone before or since.

His passions weren’t that divorced from the No People. For both, the Olympics is a means to a better end, but the flame touched them in very different ways.

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