The Guardian’s Olympics editor, Owen Gibson, swallows his cynicism and plays his part in Eltham
The last time I saw the Olympic flame, it was heading for Wales more than 60 days ago. I had travelled to Cornwall to see Goldenballs [David Beckham] land in his golden plane carrying the golden torch, feeling more than a little cynical about the heavy sponsorship cloaking the relay and with memories of the security-heavy pre-Beijing jaunt in mind.
I left three days later a convert and convinced London 2012 organisers had pulled off a masterstroke in embedding the relay in each community it passed through, meaning that a glowing core of local pride outweighed any residual discomfort at the multinational wrapper it came in.
It’s hard to stay cynical when hundreds of children – inspired or brainwashed, depending on your view – bearing paper replicas are lining the streets and mobbing the torch. Since then, an estimated 10 million people have seen the relay and it has had a similar effect in all four corners of the UK (and Dublin). Now it’s my turn.
Given the meticulous planning of the relay, which has passed within 95% of the population, it was something of a surprise to only find out where exactly my leg would be three days before I was running – and to be told I should pick up my dazzling white uniform on the day. Perhaps the relay is succeeding despite the same “just in time” ethos that has cost G4S so dearly.
The torch begins its first day in London passing through one of the Olympic venues that has proved most controversial. By siting equestrian events in Greenwich Park, Locog was able to deliver on its promises of a “compact” Games in landmark locations. But it also provoked the ire of local residents and some competitors, leading to claims that £42m is being spent on a photo opportunity with no legacy.
As one of a number of journalists offered places on the torch relay by the organisers or sponsors – Lloyds, in my case – I paused briefly before accepting in the knowledge that it’s not an opportunity likely to come around again on my own doorstep. Yes, I’ve bought in to the “once in a lifetime” schtick, too.
I’ll start close to where I take my son to football on a Saturday morning, and pass within a long hoof from the fields where I used to play Sunday league in my younger, fitter days. Both bring to mind the huge task that Seb Coe and his colleagues face in delivering on the promises they made to secure the Games, of inspiring the young and getting the rest of us off our sofas.
As is typical in London, in the now royal borough of Greenwich grinding poverty in some areas rubs up against seven-figure homes of bankers who commute to Canary Wharf. Likewise, expansive and lush private school playing fields sit cheek by jowl beside sometimes dilapidated public facilities, some of which have admittedly received makeovers from 2012-related schemes.
One of those independent schools, Eltham College, has a famous Olympic link in that one of its alumni is Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame – and its pristine pitches will play host to Ryan Giggs and the rest of the British football team before they play at Wembley.
I like to think I’ll be able to ruminate on all of that as I glide as effortlessly as Liddell up to Eltham High Street. In reality I’ll be puffing hard and too busy concentrating on not dropping the torch before passing on the flame to the next, much more worthy, bearer outside – yes – McDonald’s.
The Guardian torch relay
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