February 12, 2010

With Glowing Heart

Call me old-fashioned, but the thing I like most about the Olympic Games is the sports.

I am not a big fan of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. I usually find the two-week television extravaganza more frustrating than illuminating. And I try not to get caught up in the predictable angst over Canada's team uniforms.

I do believe that the Olympic Games are the greatest sporting event in the world, and I do love some of the "moments" that come along with it. And I've been lucky enough to witness some of those moments in two different Olympics — in fact, I've probably had more than my fair share of the Olympic experience.

One of my favourite instants of every Olympics is the lighting of the Olympic flame. For the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, that moment is only a few hours away. And way back on November 16, I had the opportunity to run in the Olympic torch relay.

As the torch relay reaches its "triumphant conclusion," the focus inevitably turns to a chorus of you-cant-be-serious and how-could-they-forget. And of course tonight there's lots of speculation about who will be the final torchbearer.

But my experience back on November 16 was very different, and it is one I won't forget. That Monday was not a good day; it started with layoffs at work, followed by a three-and-a-half hour drive to Mabou. My seven-year-old son was recovering from the flu. My wife was sick too.

My segment of the run was a short stretch of the Ceilidh Trail in Mabou, Nova Scotia. I started, as indicated on my instructions, by the 50 km/h sign on highway 19, which was dutifully marked with my torchbearer number. You could charitably call this the "outskirts" of Mabou, if Mabou was big enough to have outskirts. I was not, however, alone.

The finish line was 300 metres down a gentle slope, in front of the gas station and across the highway from the Mull Cafe and Deli. At that location I passed the flame to the next man in line. And all along the dark road, the people of rural Cape Breton had come out to cheer us on.

It was a small crowd, to be sure; a far cry from the Beijing Opening Ceremony, or even the grandstand at Lake Lanier. But in some ways, this experience was better.

There are a lot of Olympic moments that make athletes feel special. I have had more than my fair share of those, for an athlete that never reached the podium. It's a great reward to feel like you are appreciated for your efforts; to have people stand up and cheer for you, even if you are only one of a large crowd. I still get a small thrill from telling people that I competed in the Olympic Games.

But that night, nobody came to cheer for me, or for any of the other runners. Nobody even knew our names. They came out to cheer on the Olympic flame as it passed through their town. Those of us who carried the flame for them that night were simply part of their celebration, stretching from Syndey to Port Hawkesbury through many small towns in between.

I don't think I have ever felt so Canadian.

Tonight, this torchbearer — joined, I suppose, by most of those cheering fans I met on the roadside in Mabou — is back on the couch in front of the TV, where I'll be for a lot of the next 16 days. But when that flame is lit in BC Place, and the Olympics begin, I'll be proud to remember that we were all part of the journey.

No comments: