Torch Relay Aims to Fire Up US for Olympics

WHILE Olympic torch relays are nothing new, the one that begins Saturday in Los Angeles promises to be the most ambitious one ever.

Every host committee since Berlin in 1936 has put its stamp on this Olympic tradition, and the organizers of this summer's Centennial Olympics in Atlanta are no less eager to do so. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) has arranged for the flame, which is traditionally lit by the sun in Olympia, Greece, to be flown to Los Angeles. From there it will pass through 42 states and 29 capitals on its 15,000-mile, 84-day journey to the Opening Ceremony in Atlanta Stadium on July 19.

In elapsed time, that equals the last American torch relay, held in 1984 for the Los Angeles Games. Add the 84 days for the relay to the 16 days for the Olympics, and the flame will be on American soil 100 days, a fitting total given the 100th anniversary celebration.

The relay mileage is greater than ever before, and the state coverage, though less than desired, exceeds the 33 states of the 1984 relay.

"We set out to go through the 48 contiguous states," says David Emanuel, ACOG's torch spokesman, "but in looking at the deadline for bringing the flame to Atlanta, we had to make some very hard decisions."

The hardest of these was to trim the itinerary to 42 states, skipping Montana, the Dakotas, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Maine. Torchbearers will represent all 50 states.

Having 10,000 torchbearers helps the relay achieve one of its objectives: inclusiveness. The flame, not the torch itself, will be passed from one to the next. The aluminum torches are 32 inches long and weigh less than 3 pounds apiece, including propane fuel tank. (A torchbearer may buy the wind- and rain-tested torch he or she uses for about $300.)

Though heavily commercialized, this year's relay is not a fund-raising venture, as was the 1984 run, when turns at carrying the torch were sold for $3,000 per kilometer. More than half the torchbearers this time will be "community heroes" nominated by themselves or others for their community service. About 150 citizen panels around the country made the selections.

In addition, some 800 Olympians who competed in previous Games have been enlisted to carry the flame, along with a host of "Share the Spirit" torchbearers (selected by various sponsors) and various celebrities including Shaquille O'Neal and Jimmy Carter.

Most participants will run with the torch, but other modes of transportation will also be used. In less-populated areas, for example, cyclists will tick off the miles. Elsewhere, the relay will go via horseback, boat, train, and plane.

Torchbearers must be at least 12 years old. People with disabilities are included, and athletic ability was not a requirement.

Computers have been used to calculate the pace needed to stay on schedule and to assign relay slots as close to runners' home towns as possible. The relay is expected to average 15 hours and 150 miles daily.

The identity of the final runner will be a surprise in Atlanta, as it was in Los Angeles in 1984, when Rafer Johnson ignited the Olympic cauldron. Johnson, a Californian, had won the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics, when he became the first African-American to carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies.

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