Torch Relay Begins for London Olympics

Hundreds of people held up mobile phones to snap photos

Saturday, May 19, 2012  |  Updated 9:36 PM CDT
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The sun rose and shone across the moors all day, lifting spirits at a place known for its fog.

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British sailing hero Ben Ainslie kicked off the torch relay for the 2012 London Olympics with a stroll through teary, flag-waving crowds who cheered the arrival of the flame to Britain.

Hundreds of people Saturday held up mobile phones to snap photos as the gold medal winner jauntily walked past. They 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. A man who got too close to the flame as it was being carried by a torch bearer was tackled by police officers and pushed out of the way. Metropolitan police, who are providing the security for the torch, said in a statement that the public should be careful not to get between the torch and police officers guarding it.

In another unfortunate incident, a group of disabled patients from a Cornish care home missed the flame as it went by after relying on an incorrect map of its travels. The torch passed by them in a covered bus used to transport the flame over long distances.

Many people seemed to have not realized that the torch was going to get bused places. Small clots of people gathered on roadsides where only the bus would be, some having wrapped flag banners around tree barks. While organizers said such roads weren't even noted on the Olympic website for fear of causing confusion, the flame passing through little villages is a big deal and people just heard.

However, there isn't a pope mobile for the flame. People were destined for disappointment.

"Oh! We were so hoping to see it," said Dawn Coombe, 43, who stood with her husband and two daughters on a roadside near the village of Tideford, crestfallen to learn they may only see a truck going by. "It's a shame. They could have done more to make it clear."

But elsewhere, the mood was jubilant.

Organizers of the London Olympics assume the rest of the world is excited about the Olympics. What they are really working on is the citizens 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 went 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.

Torch bearer Ben Fogle didn't only walk a few feet on his torch leg. His task was to rise above the tree canopy in a balloon. The flame was being held in a miner's lamp — as explosions were not part of the plan.

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