A newspaper article in tomorrow’s Sydney Morning Herald (that is correct – the article’s date is 23/08/00), considers the side-show atmosphere of the Torch Relay around Australia. Its main gripe is the tight control the SOCOG (Sydney Olympic Committee something or other) has clamped down on the epic event. At each stop along the road, there’s been celebrations, the biggest of the day being held wherever the torch is tucked in for the night.
I always thought the relay was a simple occasion – at least, I did until I witnessed part of the torch relay for the Atlanta Olympics for myself. The once-modest number of vehicles that accompanied that torch has swollen to over 50 in the current relay.
Looking at all the hoop-de-do that accompanies the flame, snaking its way through Australia, it can be hard to remember that it was lit in at the Olymypic flame in Greece. Let that soak in and all the stuff and nonsense that tags after it fades into the background.
I am wondering what people out in rural Australia – and there are few places in developed countries as rural as it gets Down Under – are making of it. Some of these spots are beyond the beyond, and here is the torch coming through THEIR town. Countless country towns find themselves in the national spotlight, if only for one moment.
One commentator was comparing this torch relay with the one run before the Melbourne Games. Whereas the relay back then was run day and night, in 2000 the torch gets tucked in for the night before setting off again in the early morning, with a big part of its journey taking place in a vehicle, which stops at the edge of towns, where it is then run through streets before ending up at ovals and show grounds.
Local celebrations await the torch's arrival. The highlight of these
lunchtime and evening events is the lighting of the "community cauldron."
The Atlanta Olympics took the relay to a higher level, wending around the USA. The current relay is a paragon of organization, apparently without too many goofs or hitches, which I find remarkable considering the size and some of the desolate areas they’re at least driving through.
The relay, with its simple images and sense of historical purity, is boosted by now fewer than fourteen (14) sponsors, from an oil company and a car manufacturer to the News Limited, published by the always colorful and good-for-a-story Rupert Murdock (born in Australia, now an American citizen). It seems that News Limited has special sponsorship privileges, including a not-so-secret contractual arrangement which provides a flow of information about the torch relay denied to its rivals and others. Sweet, as Elsa would say.
Unfortunately, while News Limited has access to the names of the runners and where and when they will be bearing the torch, the rest of Australia, including local councils (governments) responsible for helping to stage the relay left in the dark. That is not playing well.
How foolish that seems – the relay is supposed to be about fostering community spirit, yet communities aren’t allowed any specifics? I read that one person managed to put together a list for her area, but it took her a month to get it done. Even then, by the day of the relay she was missing two names, so the town wasn’t able to contact them about joining post-torch celebrations. As one local official put it, this is all wrong, because it should all be about people and their communities, she believes, not super secretive.
I can sympathize with the problems being caused by the Olympic Committee’s fanatical protection of its symbols or anything that might even remotely resemble them. Towns and communities that wanted to gussy themselves up with full-Olympic regalia found they couldn’t use anything that gave even an impression of the Olympics’ 5-ring icon. Seems some folks out in the far reaches of Australia thought that was taking things way too far. For people with loved ones running in the relay, it was especially hard to understand the double blows - - lack of information of when friends or family were scheduled to run and the clamp-down on what seemed natural decorations for what would be some of the small towns’ biggest moment of the year, maybe the decade.
I know how I would feel if Karen or Scott, Carolyn or Leanne were running and we couldn’t get straight answers on when or where. Actually, now that I think about it, the blokes in charge of that information would have Kerry tracking them down!
It seems unbelievable to me that the local officials were also kept in the dark. Is the relay about drawing the nation together, giving big and small towns a moment to bask in the spotlight, to give local athletes and others a chance to participate in the Olympics ~ or ~ is it just an event to showcase sponsors?
The thing that would really have gotten my knickers in a twist is how the Sydney Olympic Committee seems to be treating locals. In some places, it is reported that hardly any of the runners are actually from the town. That seems incredible. In 1956, the runners that carried the torch through a town came from there, they were well known to the people who lined the streets, whether it was 2:00 p.m. or a.m.; this year, torchbearers from areas whose slots were already filled were farmed out to other places, places where they might never have stepped foot before, where they were complete strangers. Shouldn’t this be an event celebrating locals?
Still, as the article points out, the symbolic value of the torch is unquestionable, connecting communities within Australia and even with the wide wide world. Crass sponsor preferences can’t put a dent in the pride felt in communities large and small across the land I love so well.
Days - the entire relay will take 100 days nationally, with 31 in my adopted “state” of New South Wales
Distance - 27,000 kilometers will be run from start to finish, with 5,393 kilometers in NSW
Torchbearers - 10,000 men, women and children will carry the torch throughout Australia, with 3,141 in NSW
Cities, towns and villages - the torch will pass through 1,000 from coast to coast to coast to coast, with 300 in NSW
Official community celebrations - 180 nationally, 61 in NSW ~ and one here, at Squirrel Haven, where I will be cheering them all on in spirit.