Fame no pre-requisite for torch lighter

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Gretzky would deliver the international 'wow' factor, but there are arguments for others

A global electronics company - identity omitted because, like the International Olympic Committee, we do not want corporate names to taint the purity of this Olympic column - trotted Wayne Gretzky out to sing its praises and shake a few important hands Wednesday at its Live City pavilion.

The media was invited, presumably not because we were dying to see the promotional videos or listen to speeches or watch comely, faux-aboriginal pole dancers cavorting about the stage with Talking Sticks, but with the understanding that the recently-reclusive Great One might eventually grant us a few minutes to chat.

Top photo, Wayne Gretzky attends the unveiling of the Samsung Winter Games Pavilion Wednesday in Vancouver. Gretzky is seen by many as the favourite to the final torchbearer for the lighting of the Olympic flame during Friday's opening ceremonies for the

VANCOUVER -

A global electronics company - identity omitted because, like the International Olympic Committee, we do not want corporate names to taint the purity of this Olympic column - trotted Wayne Gretzky out to sing its praises and shake a few important hands Wednesday at its Live City pavilion.

The media was invited, presumably not because we were dying to see the promotional videos or listen to speeches or watch comely, faux-aboriginal pole dancers cavorting about the stage with Talking Sticks, but with the understanding that the recently-reclusive Great One might eventually grant us a few minutes to chat.

Instead, after two hours of our lives that we will never have back, the Samsung ... er, nameless electronics company public relations types first told us to wait outside a room where Gretzky was closeted, then, 10 minutes later, informed us that - oops! - he appeared to have left the premises by a side door. And by the way, they added, the exit is thataway, so thanks for coming.

"Hmm," said the cartoon balloon suspended over the media's head. Surely this meant that the rumours are true.

Obviously, Wayne Gretzky wasn't talking because he didn't want to have to lie to us when we asked him - as we surely would have - if he's going to be the final torchbearer who lights the Olympic cauldron Friday night at the opening ceremony.

Or maybe he just wanted to leave.

Either way, we are no nearer the truth now than we were a week ago, when speculation on the cauldron lighter's identity - the Vancouver organizing committee's best-kept secret to date - seemed to narrow down to two likely choices:

Betty Fox, Terry's mom, symbolically completing the Marathon of Hope alongside a hologram of her heroic son, who had to abandon his quest halfway across Canada in 1980 when the cancer that had claimed his leg returned in his lungs and soon ended his life.

Gretzky, whose scoring exploits in Canada's national game were so far above the mere mortals of his generation that he is, by most reckonings, the greatest hockey player who ever lived. (Although only "arguably", according to the nameless electronics firm's press kit)

Impassioned arguments are made on both sides, and other names have popped up in the debate - worthy ones, all. Nancy Greene-Raine. Karen Magnussen. Cindy Klassen. Even Michael J. Fox.

Gretzky boosters say it's a no-brainer. No one alive has represented the sport that's closest to our hearts with as much distinction, as a player and ambassador, than he has. He always answered the call for Team Canada, he skated for Canada at the Olympics in Nagano, managed the team in 2002 that won the first Canadian Olympic gold medal in men's hockey in 50 years, shouldered the blame when the 2006 team went down miserably in Turin.

Moreover, they say, he is world-famous, instantly recognizable. It can't be just someone who touches a chord with the local populace, it must be a "wow!" moment.

Which, of course, is nonsense. Betty Fox, not famous enough?

No one but Italians and cross-country ski enthusiasts would have known who Stefania Belmondo was, and she lit the cauldron in Turin. A Greek Olympic windsurfer, Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, lit it in Athens, a popular choice among sailors and Greeks, a mystery to the rest of the world.

Canada's history of cauldron lighters? Here's how online listings describe Stephane Prefontaine and Sandra Henderson, who did the job in Montreal in 1976: "Two teenagers."

And Robyn Perry, who lit the flame in Calgary in 1988? "A 12-year-old schoolgirl and figure skater."

She wasn't famous. Wikipedia's thumbnail descriptions of those who have handled the task at Olympics dating back to 1936 in Berlin are frequently amusing, but taken together, they tell us that international fame, either lasting or ephemeral, is not a requirement.

The Berlin lighter, Franz Schilgen, "was not actually a competitor at the Olympics, but was chosen for his particularly graceful-looking running style." In Oslo in 1952, they chose the grandson of a famous Norwegian polar explorer.

Everyone remembers Muhammad Ali, terribly stricken with tremors caused by Parkinson's Syndrome, lighting the cauldron in Atlanta in 1996, and Aussie aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman's emotional moment in Sydney 2000, and the blind archer, Antonio Rebollo, who "figuratively" ignited Barcelona's cauldron in 1992 by shooting a flaming arrow over top of the gas jet - he was told to aim high, for which fans seated below the cauldron must have been grateful.

The Americans always make it a Hollywood moment - decathlete Rafer Johnson in Los Angeles, the 1980 Miracle On Ice hockey team in Salt Lake City - but many, if not most, of the names who lit the cauldrons over the years don't ring a bell, even faintly.

A few surely do - Finland's legendary runner Paavo Nurmi, Soviet basketball star Sergey Belov, French midfielder Michel Platini, Japanese figure skater Midori Ito.

But do you recognize these? John Mark, Eigil Nansen, Guido Caroli, Hans Wikne, Ken Henry, Giancarlo Peris, Josef Rieder, Hideki Takada, Gunther Zahn, Alain Calmat, Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo, Josef Feistmantl, Charles Morgan Kerr, Sanda Dubravcic ... there is no perfect choice.

Betty and Terry Fox, digitally reunited, might be magic, to us. Gretzky would be terrific, for the world. But any number of others could be there, too - and, in these Games which are so much about aboriginal inclusion, you might want to keep in mind Shirley and Sharon Firth of Aklavik, Northwest Territories, the twin sisters from Gwich'in First Nation who were part of Canada's cross-country ski team for a generation and competed in four Olympic Games from 1972 through 1984.

But it would be really nice if we didn't know, until the moment it happens.

And even nicer if, as the organizing committee's CEO John Furlong said, the crowd's reaction is: "Of course."

1936 Summer (Berlin): Fritz Schilgen, a track athlete

1948 Summer (London): John Mark, a track athlete

1952 Winter (Oslo): Eigil Nansen, the grandson of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen

1952 Summer (Helsinki): Paavo Nurmi, winner of nine Olympic gold medals in distance running in the 1920s

1956 Winter (Cortina): Guido Caroli, a speedskater who participated in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympics. Skating with the torch, he tripped over a television cable, but kept the flame burning

1956 Summer (Melbourne): Ron Clarke and Hans Wikne (Stockholm, where equestrian events were held). Long distance runner Clarke would later win an Olympic bronze medal in 1964 ; Wikne later participated in the 1964 Olympics

1960 Winter (Squaw Valley): Ken Henry, Olympic champion in 500 m speed skating at the 1952 Games

1960 Summer (Rome): Giancarlo Peris, track athlete of Greek descent

1964 Winter (Innsbruck): Joseph Rieder, a former alpine skier who had taken part in the 1956 Olympics

1964 Summer (Tokyo): Yoshinori Sakai, a track and field athlete who hade been born on the day the atom bomb exploded over his native Hiroshima

1968 Winter (Grenoble): Alain Calmat, former figure skater, winner of the silver medal in the 1964 Olympics

1968 Summer (Mexico City): Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo, a sprinter who participated in these Olympics. She was the first woman to be the last torch bearer.

1972 Winter (Sapporo): Hideki Takada, a student and speedskater

1972 Summer (Munich): GÜnther Zahn, a middle distance runner

1976 Winter (Innsbruck): Christl Haas and Josef Feistmantl. Haas won the Olympic downhill title in 1964; Feistmantl won the luge doubles in the same year

1976 Summer (Montreal): Teenage runners StÉphane PrÉfontaine of Montreal and Sandra Henderson of Toronto

1980 Winter (Lake Placid): Charles Kerr, a psychiatrist from Arizona who had been elected by all that year's torchbearers to run the final leg

1980 Summer (Moscow): Sergey Belov, basketball player who won four Olympic medals, including a gold in 1972

1984 Winter (Sarajevo): Sandra DubravÃiÃ, a figure skater who participated in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics

1984 Summer (Los Angeles): Rafer Johnson, winner of the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics.

1988 Winter (Calgary): Robyn Perry, a 12-year-old schoolgirl and figure skater. She became the youngest person to light Winter Olympic flame

1988 Summer (Seoul): Sohn Kee-chung, marathon gold medallist in 1936, carried the torch into the stadium, and the relay was continued by Chung Sun-Man, Kim Won-Tak and Sohn Mi-Chung, three young track and field athletes. Kim took part in the Olympic marathon

1992 Winter (Albertville): Michel Platini and FranÇois-Cyrille Grange, both soccer players. Platini took part in the Olympics in 1976; Grange was eight years old in 1992, topping Perry as the youngest flame lighter.

1992 Summer (Barcelona): Antonio Rebollo, a visually impaired archer who competed in the Paralympic Games

1994 Winter (Lillehammer): Crown Prince Haakon of Norway. His father and grandfather took part in the Olympics

1996 Summer (Atlanta): Boxer Muhammad Ali, who, under the name Cassius Clay, won Olympic gold in 1960

1998 Winter (Nagano): Midori Ito, figure skater, winner of Olympic silver in 1992

2000 Summer (Sydney): Cathy Freeman, a track and field athlete. She won the gold medal in the 400 metres at these Olympics

2002 Winter (Salt Lake City): All the members of the U.S. ice hockey team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1980

2004 Summer (Athens): Nikolas Kaklamanakis, a Greek windsurfer

2006 Winter (Turin): Stefania Belmondo, Italian gold medalist cross-country skier

2008 Summer (Beijing): Li Ning, Chinese gymnast, three-time gold medalist in 1984.

Sources: spiritus-temporis.com; nbcolympics.com

Organizations: International Olympic Committee, Samsung, Team Canada On Ice First Nation Li Ning

Geographic location: VANCOUVER, Canada, Live Turin Montreal Berlin Nagano Athens Calgary Oslo Atlanta Barcelona Los Angeles Salt Lake City Hollywood Finland Aklavik Northwest Territories London Helsinki Melbourne Stockholm Squaw Valley Rome Tokyo Hiroshima Mexico City Munich Toronto Lake Placid Arizona Moscow Sarajevo Seoul Sydney U.S. Beijing

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • no way
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Why Wayne Gretzky?? I thought the Olympics was supposed to be about AMATEUR sports, not about pros who made multi-millions playing hockey.

  • Hockey Mom
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Wayne Gretzky all the way......

  • no way
    July 01, 2010 - 20:24

    Why Wayne Gretzky?? I thought the Olympics was supposed to be about AMATEUR sports, not about pros who made multi-millions playing hockey.

  • Hockey Mom
    July 01, 2010 - 19:44

    Wayne Gretzky all the way......