Shedding Light on the Olympic Torch Trail

For New Englanders who witnessed this spring's centennial Boston Marathon, the Olympic torch relay was heavy on anticipation, light on viewable action.

Whereas the marathon produced a river of thousands of runners and corridors of cheering crowds, the relay, which began in Los Angeles on April 27, proved a far more fleeting and subdued experience for those who lined the marathon's route in Wellesley, Mass., on Saturday.

Gathered near where Wellesley College students traditionally create a "tunnel of noise" for the marathoners, scattered spectators watched quietly for a solitary torchbearer jogging along Route 135.

There was no Olympic musical fanfare as the female mystery runner, Andras Schram, approached, only numerous escort cars, vans, and motorcycles fore and aft, including a goodly number bearing the name and message of a certain cola manufacturer sponsoring the torch's ambitious tour of America. The trail continued down through Boston where local sports figures participated in the relay.

Despite the commercial trappings of this 84-day, 15,000-mile trek to Atlanta and the opening ceremony of the Centennial Games, the relay itself is a simple and sometimes moving testament to the power of the Olympic spirit and ideals.

When the relay passed through Indianapolis earlier this month, torchbearer Jeff Coates perhaps spoke for many of the 10,000 people so honored when he said the experience "signifies a lot of heartfelt kinds of things in terms of dedication, of discipline, of commitment, of sacrifice to something you believe in."

In May, Sharon Cash, a Memphis, Tenn., drug addict turned counselor, said that her opportunity to transport the Olympic flame was a means of showing others that "there's something in the universe that sees us through, if we're willing."

The flame itself symbolizes the light of spirit, knowledge, and life. It is lit by the sun's rays during a ceremony in Greece before each Olympics, then transported to the host country.

The idea for the modern torch relay, begun in 1936, was conceived by Dr. Carl Diem of Germany, who drew his inspiration from ancient Greek drawings and the writings of Plutarch. Each Olympic host group has sought to place its stamp on this tradition. (See accompanying box.)

The journey has seen delays and flame-outs (a backup is ready and waiting), but the caravan rolls on, daily averaging 150 miles and 15 hours of transit time. When all is said and done, the relay and those carrying the torch up to one kilometer will have passed within two hours driving distance of the United States population and gone through 42 states. Needless to say, it is the largest ever Olympic torch relay.

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