Storytime was starting to make me feel inadequate. Fourteen of us sitting in a shuttle bus, torches in hand, sharing how we came to be carrying the Olympic flame through the streets of Halifax. Alistair, from Musquodoboit Harbour, who has spent the last 37 years stocking grocery store shelves and working for local charities, rewarded with a spot by his store manager when their Sobeys won a contest for selling the most Coke (a torch-relay sponsor). Lynn, who has watched proudly from Halifax as her brothers and sisters have gone off to serve in Canadian peacekeeping and military missions around the world, trying to put her feelings about winning a space in the relay lottery into words.
“My brother emailed me from Malaysia: ‘Now it’s your turn to shine,’ ” she says, tears welling in her eyes. Andrea, a sponsor’s pick, overjoyed just to be fitting into the white, nylon track suit, eight days after giving birth to her son Maxime. (So determined to be on hand for the moment that she had convinced her obstetrician to induce her if labour didn’t start on its own.) And Barb, whose eloquence about carrying the Calgary flame along Nova Scotia’s eastern shore in 1988 won her an RBC essay contest, and a second go-round at age 74. “I remember being so excited. My heart was pounding, I could hardly breathe,” she says. “Of course, back then you ran a kilometre, not a measly 300 m.”
The deserving—and the journalist—gathered at the Halifax Citadel in the pre-dawn darkness. We squeezed around a table in a barrel-vaulted, whitewashed barrack room for the pep talk and briefing. The longest-ever domestic torch run—12,000 participants covering a 45,000-km route, in 1,036 communities over 106 days—demands military precision; numbered “insertion points,” the timely arrival of key-wielding attendants to “activate” your torch, a carefully ordered convoy of police, sponsor trucks, media vans and shuttles. But its lifeblood is enthusiasm. Shannon, the bubbly Vancouverite who has taken a year’s leave from her job as a preschool teacher to host and herd the relay runners, encourages us to high-five, hug, even perform end-zone victory dances at the exchange points (“kissing the flame” in Olympic-speak). Just be mindful not to set your toque ablaze. “I want you to be as Canadian as maple syrup today,” she exhorts. “Get gooey. Let the moment stick to you. Always be sweet.”
We troop outside to the blare of pipes and drums. The sunrise is pinking the mouth of the harbour; a perfect backdrop for the group picture. Joggers pause to clap and cheer as we shuffle to the bus, our Man from Glad tracksuits rustling like an approaching forest fire.
On board, there’s some thumping U2 (I steel myself for the theme from Chariots of Fire, but it never comes), then some quiet moments for the stories. Mine consists of an admission that I’ll be stealing theirs. A few minutes later we’re driving the relay route. The shuttle stops every minute or so and disgorges another torchbearer to the Shannon-led cheers of the passengers. (Doug, the final runner, looks around the rapidly emptying bus and smartly demands his in advance.)
At a quarter to eight on a bright and perfect November morning, I find myself standing by a telephone pole in the midst of a residential stretch of Agricola Street in the city’s north end. A few homeowners have gathered at the ends of their drives to watch the procession. It’s not exactly a Sidney Crosby-sized crowd—the Pittsburgh Penguins captain drew 8,000 people when he carried the torch through the downtown two nights before—but they’re friendly. I pose for pictures with some of the neighbourhood kids. A young man descends from his porch and asks to touch the torch. A Mountie drives by in his cruiser and gives me the thumbs up.
The moment nears. The advance man arrives on a bike, inserts a key, and sets the butane hissing. “Keep the red maple leaf pointed toward you, and remember to face the cameras as you light it,” are his instructions. A couple of cops on motorcycles drive by, then there are some cheers and clapping as Alistair comes into view. We meet in the middle of the street, and awkwardly tap the tops of our metre-long torches together. The metal clangs and there’s a soft “whoosh.” I have the Olympic flame in my hands.
I set off down the street at a pace that barely qualifies as a trot. If these are my 300 m of glory, I am determined to milk them for all they’re worth. The spectators are sparse, but they are all kind enough to applaud or give a thumbs up as I pass. No one has covered the etiquette, but it seems rude, perhaps even un-Canadian, not to say something: “Thanks” feels a bit lame, so I settle on “good morning,” like I’m just out walking the dog, or taking the kids to school. But mostly, I watch the torch. It isn’t heavy, just a kilo and a half, but it commands your attention. The flame is fiercer than I had expected; I can feel its heat in the morning cool, and it quickly blackens the white metal at the tip.
Then, before I’ve really had time to absorb it, my turn is done. Laura, a marketer for a movie theatre chain and mother of three, is standing in the road before me with an ear-splitting grin. We tap torches and embrace. An attendant grabs my torch and turns off the gas. The flame has moved on.
Seconds later, I climb back on to the shuttle to cheers and backslaps from the other runners. It’s just after 8 a.m. Alistair hands me the guest book where each relay participant is to record their name and thoughts for posterity. “I’m not so good with words, but you should be able to write something nice,” he says. I flip through the pages that already trace the torch’s path from B.C. to the Far North, Newfoundland and Labrador, and now Nova Scotia. By the time the Olympic cauldron is lit in Vancouver on Feb. 12, the flame will have passed through hundreds more communities and the hands of thousands more Canadians. A huge, unwieldy country being stitched together 300 m at a time. I look at Alistair’s entry. It simply reads, “I enjoyed myself.” I try, and fail, to top it.