Braunton, Devon, England — Olympic hopes and dreams aren’t restricted to athletes, medals or those who can afford tickets.
As 8,000 torchbearers carry the Olympic flame through 1,019 United Kingdom villages, towns and cities, and 70,000 volunteers prepare to serve at Olympic venues, hundreds of inspirational stories have emerged. Even initial cynics like me have been moved.
When I watched London’s successful Olympic bid televised in July 2005 from the comfort of my Lawrence home, I was pretty skeptical. Having worked in London for over 30 years, fought my way through endless daily traffic jams — the 3-miles-in-one-hour type — crowded buses and tubes, I thought the Olympics would be an organizational disaster and the last thing London needed.
Besides expensive travel and tickets, overbearing crowds and obsessive media hype, I felt it would be way too much. Better to park myself on my Lawrence sofa, under air-conditioning, and watch the games on TV as a neutral observer. Ha! Ha! Neutral my foot.
Through happy circumstances, I find myself temporarily in England, and despite being unable to afford tickets and London (increased price) accommodation, I’ve been caught up in Olympic excitement through free events, and touched by extraordinary stories of ordinary people and historic moments across the British Isles before a medal’s even been won.
I’ve gasped in awe at the lowering of the giant Olympic rings from Tower Bridge, the altophobic torchbearer standing atop the London Eye, and cried unashamedly as the torch — a symbol of peace, unity and hope — was carried across the Peace Bridge in my formerly war-torn hometown Derry, Northern Ireland.
At 8:12 a.m. Friday morning, I shivered (not from the weather) in a Devon churchyard as the church bells rang, pealing in unison with bells across the U.K., including those of Derry’s Protestant and Catholic cathedrals that have synchronized their bells for a historic first. Olympic hopes and dreams beyond medals.
Grandmother Linda Copp, 66, from Torrington, Devon, also remembers the 2005 Olympic announcement.
“I thought it’d be wonderful to visit London for the games but knew it was beyond my reach since it was cost-prohibitive and I don’t have a car,” she explains.
On a whim, she responded to a bus advert appealing for 70,000 Olympic volunteers and was astounded to be chosen from over 250,000 applicants.
She’s now a Games Maker, as the volunteers are called. She’ll work nine 7-hour shifts (three of them starting at 6:15 a.m.) over a 10-day period at the shooting venue in Woolwich, London.
Like all Games Makers, including medical staff, she’s paid her own travel and accommodation expenses, and taken unpaid (or vacation) leave.
“It’s inspiring to see Games Makers of all ages and from all walks of life, and wonderful so many older people like me have been given the opportunity to be an integral part of the Olympics,” she says. “For me, it’s an impossible dream come true.”
Copp was moved to see her whole community turn out for the torch’s journey through Torrington.
Anne Tattersall, former Torrington mayor, says, “I’d absolutely no interest in the Olympics and only went uptown to support the torchbearers. I couldn’t believe how moved I was. In some strange way, I felt I became part of Olympic history.”
Such comments echo many made throughout the country as the torch made its way to the Opening Ceremony.
Christine Westlake, 55, from Devon, who will carry the Paralympic torch, nominated her 86-year-old dad, Tony Hill, retired farmer and former amateur athlete, as a torchbearer. Hill had been Somerset’s selection to carry the 1948 Games torch, but he developed appendicitis.
“To be on the operating table instead of carrying the Olympic torch was especially disappointing,” he admits.
He relived the disappointment when the 2012 Olympics were announced.
“I wanted my dad’s broken dream to be restored,” states Westlake.
Since 90 percent of nominations came from the general public, Westlake didn’t hold out much hope. She was delighted when her dad was chosen to carry the Olympic flame through Barnstaple, Devon.
“It’s such a blessing for me to see my father achieve a dream broken 64 years ago,” says Westlake.
Her father’s thrilled.
“It’s a special honor for me,” he says. “I was nervous, but everybody was very friendly and helpful. The spirit of friendship amongst the torchbearers was terrific. The youngest was a lovely, polite 12-year old lad, and I was (one of) the oldest.
“I was also amazed at the number of people — seven to eight deep in places — who lined the streets to watch. It was an amazing atmosphere and something I’ll never forget.”
Goodbye, sofa. I’ll be on my feet cheering U.S., British and Irish Olympians as well as those who’ve made it possible to include the rest of us on the Olympic journey.