Olympic Torch Starts 8,000 Mile Journey

British Olympic sailing hero and three time gold medalist Ben Ainslie holds the Olympic torch at the official start of the London 2012 Olympic games torch relay at Land's End, west of England. (Alastair Grant/AP)
British Olympic sailing hero and three time gold medalist Ben Ainslie holds the Olympic torch at the official start of the London 2012 Olympic games torch relay at Land's End, west of England. (Alastair Grant/AP)

LAND'S END, England — British sailing hero Ben Ainslie kicked off the torch relay for the 2012 London Olympics on Saturday with a stroll through teary, flag-waving crowds who cheered the arrival of the flame.

Hundreds held up mobile phones to snap photos as he jauntily walked past and banged on plastic tambourines handed out by sponsors, creating a roar that shook the hillsides of this picturesque spot — the furthest point west in England.

The sun rose and shone across the moors all day, lifting spirits at a place known for its fog. It was a good-natured start of an event, which lasts for 70 days and ends with the lighting of the cauldron to start the games on July 27.

There were some mishaps along the way.

The torch is carried by torchbearers along part of its journey around Britain, but it also travels in a bus during other parts of the route.

A group of disabled patients from a Cornish care home space had gathered along the route to watch the flame, at a spot given to them by the local council, but were disappointed when they realized that the torch would only pass them in a covered bus, not carried aloft by one of the torch bearers. Olympic organizers said the council had mixed up the route and should not have allocated the group a spot where the torch was being driven.

But elsewhere, the mood was jubilant.

Organizers of the London Olympics assume the rest of the world is excited about the Olympics.

But what they are really working on is the people who live here — the people who are paying 9.3 billion pounds ($14.7 billion) to host the event and are wondering if this is money well spent. The organizers need the torch relay to inspire excitement in Britain ahead of the games. And for the first day anyway, it was working. People got up as early as 4 a.m. to watch the flame rise with the sun.

"It's iconic, isn't it?" said Beverly Wills, 47, who came with her husband and her son. "It's not going to happen again in our lifetime. It brings everyone together."

The flame arrived on British soil Friday night, a week after being captured by the sun's rays in ancient Olympia.

Soccer legend David Beckham and Princess Anne headlined the dignitaries who came to collect it, flying it on BA flight 2012 to the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose. The air rescue pilots then flew the flame over to Land's End in the morning. They took a spin over the crowd, and hundreds of hands reached into the air to wave and to cheer.


The crowd's goodwill was not just for the flame. This is an island after all, and the search and rescue team often do rescue people. "It was a great way to celebrate the search and rescue guys," said Paul Deighton, the organizing committee's chief executive. "That's what our torchbearers are to do — honor unsung heroes."

From here on out, it journeys around the country in an 8,000 mile (12,875 kilometer) jamboree featuring the same number of runners. It will make appearances at Stonehenge and in Scotland, in Durham and at Dover, in London and in Liverpool. Organizers are proud of saying that the flame will come within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of 95 percent of the British population.

They are hoping, together with tourism officials, to create a video calling card of all things pretty and British — a sort of running "come and visit us commercial."

This is part of the reason to host the Olympics in the first place — to bring tourism, attention and money into the country.

The people of Cornwall — and especially those who clogged Land's End on Saturday — think it is perfectly appropriate that the tour should begin with them. As the name suggests, this place likes to think of itself as the craggy edge of the world. A signpost beside Ainslie as he picked up the torch offers a helpful milestone and an arrow "New York, 3,147." The Isles of Scilly, by helpful contrast, are a mere 28 miles (45 kilometers).

"We're glad that Cornwall is in this," said Callum Brown, 13, who sat with his class, Union flags at the ready, waiting for Ainslie's appearance. "It will be good for the wider UK."

Cornwall could use a little attention.

It is surrounded by miles (kilometers) of rugged beaches and cliffs, and is often portrayed as an escape hatch for hip celebrities. But the reality means that this naturally beautiful corner of England has struggled economically, especially in the off season.

One big draw to the area recently has been the Eden Project, a biodiversity program that features the world's largest greenhouse. Not surprisingly, the sanctuary devoted to all things green and sustainable was a key stop on day No. 1 of the torch tour. The torch bearer is to rise above the tree canopy in a balloon. The flame will be held in a miner's lamp — as explosions are not part of the plan.

This program aired on May 19, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live