Olympic torch ardently guarded

LONDON – The Olympic Flame’s journey to Athens has all the hallmarks of a presidential tour with security, surveillance, motorcades, cheering crowds and a specially chartered jumbo jet. The flame has constant escorts and its own 747, dubbed Zeus, and is always sure of a rousing welcome as it blazes a trail on a global six-week relay leading up to the August Games in Athens. Behind the scenes, torch escorts wearing orange and blue tops work around the clock to protect the precious flame. The torch guards, who this week are helping to shepherd the flame through Berlin, Stockholm and Helsinki before arriving in Moscow on Saturday, even talk as if they are protecting a president rather than a tiny flame. «We take this seriously and protect it at all hours. We couldn’t live with ourselves if it went out,» said David Emanuel, a torch relay official from San Francisco. They have been tested. Scuffles between police and the media broke out in Mexico City when the so-called «flame of peace» made a lap of the city’s main streets. When the spectators go home, the torch escorts remain by the Olympic Flame, whether it is by night in hotel rooms or in the air while flying more than 78,000 km on Zeus, which is ferrying the 150-strong relay team around the world. Relay organizers coordinate the movements of not only the Olympic Flame and Zeus from city to city, but also Hera, a second 747. This jet is used to carry support staff, the motorbikes that form a motorcade to flank torchbearers, Olympic cauldrons and uniforms. It also acts as a backup should something go wrong with Zeus. «We take it one day at a time,» said relay coordinator Steven McCarthy. «What we adapt to and what we really appreciate is the differences culturally between every city. That’s where a little bit of the magic comes in.» McCarthy wears a jacket laden with several two-way radios and mobile phones encrypted to stop eavesdroppers. His job is to make sure the Olympic magic is not derailed by accident or design. Each day, as Zeus arrives in a new country, the relay team work their way through a city relay of around 50 km that has taken more than three years of planning. Police escorts with blaring sirens accompany the relay, adding to the ceremonial drama. «The challenge is how do you make New Delhi structurally look like Montreal in terms of operational integrity, protection of the flame, security, media opportunities and everything else without denigrating or diminishing their own cultural sensitivities or their showcase opportunities,» said McCarthy. The flame, known as the «Mother Flame» by torch relay runners, was lit from the sun’s rays in Olympia on March 25. It returns to Greece on July 9 for a national tour before entering the Olympic Stadium to light the cauldron at the Games opening ceremony on August 13. There are at least three small lanterns used to help light Olympic relay torches and provide a backup should one go out, a hitch that occasionally occurs. They look much like a miner’s lamp with a wick nestled in lamp oil and they burn for 15 hours at a time. When in the air, the lanterns are mounted on a wall at the rear of Zeus in a restricted zone protected by escort runners. Aviation authorities had to issue a special permit to allow the lanterns to burn while in the air. Runners have three rows of seats in front of the lanterns as part of the security cordon. «It’s our job to make sure the flame never goes out and that’s what we do,» said flame escort Doug Cowie as the relay team assembled before dawn to fly on Zeus from Paris to London last week. On board Zeus, there is a buzz of Olympic excitement with Greek national flags hanging from the overhead lockers, but for many of the team the priority is simply to nab some sleep. There have been lost passports and flat tyres on media relay trucks, but no headache big enough to disrupt the flame’s journey by torchbearer, car, plane, boat, bicycle and wheelchair across the five continents represented by the Olympic rings.