Briefly, the bearer of Olympic hopes and dreams

As the bus approached the spot where I would begin my leg of the Olympic Torch Relay at the corner of 5th Avenue and East 72nd Street in Manhattan, I peered ahead and saw a crowd of onlookers gathered at the intersection. They were curiously awaiting the arrival of the guy who was to begin the torch's run through Central Park South to its destination in Times Square, that day last month.

My family was there, visiting New York for the first time from the cornfields of the Midwest, where I grew up. So, too, were a dozen friends who'd come from as far away as San Francisco, screaming to me from the crowd as if I were a movie star, as opposed to the everyday Joe that I really am.

And then there were a few hundred people I have never met before, but with whom I will forever share a lasting bond. As I got off the bus and ran around the crowd, hugging my friends and family and high-fiving strangers, it finally dawned on me what it meant to carry the Olympic Torch.

When the torchbearer who would pass the flame to me approached, Central Park was filled with a deafening cheer and a sea of American flags rose around me.

Traveling the world, the very same flame had been carried across every continent to cities of every cultural, ethnic, religious, social, and political heritage. It had traveled to places wrought with conflict, strife, and hunger, and to places of peace and prosperity. It had been celebrated and even revered by people from New Delhi to Beijing to Cairo, just as it was being welcomed before me in New York.

I was awestruck. As my torch was lit and cameras flashed from all sides, I realized how significant, yet small, my 400-meter trek was to the purpose of this flame.

I smiled, thinking that for a brief moment, the world's 8 billion people had trusted me to carry a symbol that has stood for camaraderie, brotherhood, and peace since ancient times.

After finishing my leg, I let children take turns holding the torch and posed for pictures with bicyclists and families that were passing by. It was clear that the Olympic dream was still alive. For a moment, strangers were friends. People shared a joke and helped each other take pictures. There was laughter.

As things died down, I left the park, torch in hand. I passed three elderly Greek-Americans on a park bench. They had heard of the relay passing by but had missed the event. When I offered to let them hold the torch for a picture, they had tears in their eyes. They agreed only to touch it, insisting instead that I be the one to hold it.

"The blessing was given to you," one of the women said. "You must hold it."

Indeed, a blessing was given to me.

For a brief moment, I became the vessel for a force that in a divided world still helps bring people together through the common human experience. The power wielded by the Olympic torch reminds me of the goals I have pursued in my work and gave me a renewed hope for my dreams of a united world.

John Bauters, a law student at Boston College, was selected to be an Olympic torchbearer primarily on the basis of his disaster-relief work with the American Red Cross. This is a reprint of a commentary he wrote for public radio station WBUR.

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