By Bev Schellenberg
“The Olympic torch came from Hitler, you know.”
I pressed my phone closer to my ear, thinking I’d heard incorrectly. “Pardon?”
“Yeah. It was his idea. I think, anyway. You can look it up on internet.”
I never thought I’d be impressed with an idea Hitler came up with, and I wasn’t about to start with the Olympic torch. Yet as my kids and I stood amidst hundreds of people lining our street early the other morning, our breath swirling in the dawn air, I was excited regardless of where the tradition originated. An elderly woman waved the free flag she was given by the pre-torch entourage and spoke quietly to the man beside her. I met a neighbour for the first time, and we chatted about housing developments and traffic as our kids ran along the sidewalk in the darkness. People wore their red Olympic mitts and hats, and waved Canadian flags. Waiting.
While thankful for the rain-free, relatively warm morning, I thought of an American friend of mine, Michael, his state, Pennsylvania, buried in snow while we of the Winter Olympics were getting our snow shipped. He’d suggested I bring a bucket of water to pour on the torch as it went by because then he’d know the crazy Canadian torch-dousing woman being taken to jail. Such an American sense of humour.
And then I saw the flame held high, cresting the hill. Illuminated by the light, the man holding the torch was smiling, as were those running with him. The torch’s design was remarkably reminiscent of a marijuana joint, although it was supposed to be reflective of “Canada’s open landscape”. It seemed oddly fitting that Canadians would be passing such a symbol from province-to-province, and that its final destination would be relaxed-pot-law BC. As the torchbearer went by, the runners with him began to chant, “Go, Canada, go.” A father with two kids called, “Come on, boys. Let’s run with the torch,” and they took off down the sidewalk.
We could see our torchbearer wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was among those chosen to run the torch in its final hours, despite a lot of British Columbian grumbling. A few excused the decision to include Arnie by saying, “He’s a friend of Gordon Campbell.” It makes one wonder just how many of the Premier’s friends carried the torch?
We didn’t know who the carrier was. As the second post-torch security car passed, a lady called to the passenger: “Who was carrying the torch?” The fellow shrugged and replied, “I don’t know.” There we were before the sun had even begun to rise, watching a few people and vehicles go by, most of us clueless as to their names. We were there to see a torch passed hand-to-hand over vast distances, a tradition actually begun in 1936 by the German Olympic organizer, Carl Diem.
After the free pancake breakfasts, and the entertainment from local elementary and high school singing and band groups, my Psychology grade 11 class and I headed out to get people’s opinions of the torch’s arrival, and of the Vancouver Olympics. We arrived in the local mall, clipboards in hand. Forty-five minutes later we were kicked out by mall security, although we were told that we could continue to buy food and make other purchases — we just couldn’t ask fellow patrons or store employees any questions about the Olympics.
Before we were expelled, I managed to speak to a kindly 88-year old woman, Midge, from a local senior’s home. She explained that every day she comes to the very bench I saw her on, sits awhile, moves to another bench, then buys a treat of chocolate or candy from the grocery store and returns to the home. She was happy to answer questions, saying she’s thrilled to have the Olympics here in BC, as it brings money and people, although she added with a laugh, “Maybe we don’t need more people . . .”
An older gentleman I spoke with was happy to have the Olympics here and mentioned he was going to be seeing his granddaughter carry the torch. When I asked why she was chosen, he said, “I’m not sure — she’s a police officer. Maybe that’s it.”
Undeterred by being bounced, we headed to the street to continue our questioning. Half the students were dressed in formal Olympics attire and half were dressed normally. Of the 120 people approached, 36% questioned by the formally-dressed students declined to answer any questions, while only 15% questioned by the regularly-dressed students declined. Perhaps the ordinarily-dressed students appeared more approachable, although most of the clientele were seniors. Perhaps the well-dressed students were more intimidating.
Opinions were mixed — unlike those of the 100 grade 1s, grade 3s, grade 4s, and grade 7s we also interviewed, also prior to the opening ceremony. For the children we were all dressed normally. In each class there was one student who wasn’t happy about the Olympics coming because he or she had overheard that it was too expensive. Every other child was thrilled Vancouver is hosting the Winter Olympics, and they used words like “happy” and “excited.” One of our interviewers, a grade 11 student, after reflecting on the somewhat negative viewpoint of the child she spoke with, stated that when she becomes a mom she isn’t going to complain to her children about things like the cost of the Olympics “because it ruins it for them.”
The relay’s Nazi provenance may be an unfortunate start to the tradition, but based on the thousands and thousands of people across Canada who viewed it, and the many notable Canadians who carried the flame, it appears most of us decided to set aside our various reservations and instead enjoy the torch for what it is: a gigantic doobie handed from person to person in one big communal experience. It looks like we have decided to be the amiable hosts we’re capable of being. As Stephen Hume points out, we may as well enjoy the party. Bring on the munchies, dude.