The Vancouver Island community of Coombs, B.C., is one of those eccentric wide spots in the road that elevate a Canadian road trip to an adventure. There’s a flea market, an army surplus store, a tiny amusement park—and that store with the goats on the roof. It was here, to Coombs, and specifically to the goat-filled sod roof of the Old Country Market, where the Olympic flame came calling on a sunny Sunday morning. It was stop five of Day Three of its 106-day, 45,000-km cross-Canada odyssey. Since its arrival in Victoria on a military jet from Athens last Friday it has already experienced ignition anxiety issues, protests, delays, diversion and heavy weather. It has been jeered at, cheered and teared at. But by the time it hit Coombs, and indeed well before, this $32-million relay had hit its stride.
It was quite a parade. First down Highway 4A came Happy 1 and Happy 2, custom-built vehicles, which torch-run sponsor Coca-Cola filled with music and shiny, bouncy people. Then came Loonie and Toonie, the support vehicles for co-sponsors RBC. The crowd was already primed with free Coke products in collector-edition bottles, and blue RBC tambourines. Then came the police. Lots of police. And finally, surrounded by yet more security, came a beaming Dave Johnson of Seattle–—a Nortel employee seconded to the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC)—chugging into the outskirts of Coombs with the torch held high. He was greeted like a rock star by a crowd of several hundred, as he handed off the flame to one of the happy handful of other torchbearers, some of whom carried the flame onto the roof.
The goats, jaded and much-photographed tourist attractions, seemed indifferent. Not so Johnson, who calls the flame a symbol of peace, international co-operation and excellence, and who offered his spent torch to any and all who wished to hold it. Equally pumped was 18-year-old Mohsen Kheari of Victoria, who had long ago submitted his request to be a bearer to the Coke website. Like most runners, he paid $350 to keep it. He’ll display the torch in his bedroom. But first he was headed back to his afternoon hockey game in Victoria to show his teammates. “They’re really a nice bunch of guys,” he says. “If anything, they deserve this torch as much as I do.” As for the Olympics themselves, which start in Vancouver Feb. 12 with the flame’s scheduled arrival—come hell or high water, and probably both—“it’s going to be a beautiful three weeks,” he says.
The flame stopped in Coombs for just nine minutes, one of 13 stops on that day’s 240-km trek. Down the road, it was guest of honour at a rollicking celebration in Port Alberni, a sports-mad community that sent 64 people to the Beijing Olympics in support of local wrestler and firefighter Travis Cross, who, of course, carried the torch. In Tofino that evening, it rode a surfboard in the capable hands of local legend Raph Bruhwiler, who later pronounced the dicey exercise, after one false start in crashing waves, “a piece of cake.”
On Saturday, the flame had entered Khowutzun, the Cowichan tribal lands outside Duncan. There to greet it was Chief Lydia Hwitsum. She wore a towering hat of woven cedar, and stood in high leather boots with stiletto heels. Like many in the crowd, she wore a hand-knit Cowichan wool sweater. A point was being made. Hers was a gift from her mother when she graduated from law school. On its back her mother, Amelia, knitted two orcas, carriers of knowledge and history.
It was only the day before when the chief helped broker a deal with VANOC and the Hudson’s Bay Company to include genuine Cowichan sweaters in its Olympic stores, to supplement a sanctioned line of sweaters that borrow heavily from the tribal design. The knock-offs were a “slap in the face” to knitters like Martina Wilson, 52, who has been crafting wool since she was nine years old, or the chief’s mother, who is 85, and has been knitting for 60 years. With the torch approaching, and public sympathy with the band, the deal averted a major embarrassment for VANOC and the Bay. As the chief put it, this was a chance to “get the attention of the corporations that are benefiting significantly economically from the Olympics and try to channel some microeconomic opportunity to Cowichan knitters and families.” The Olympics are a short-term benefit. A secondary deal will see the Bay “engage in a longer-term opportunity with Cowichan knitted sweaters and products,” she says.
Hwitsum is a great fan of the “healthy competition” the Olympics represent. It would seem hardball is her sport of choice.
Saturday night was Halloween, and thousands attended an elaborate community celebration at a waterfront park further up island in Nanaimo. There were sponsor giveaways and booths where you could be photographed holding an Olympic torch. There were the inevitable speeches. There was a local band and hip-hop group, and a Coke-sponsored acrobatic act that included two spandexed young women performing contortions that might well be illegal in several southern U.S. states.
The greatest cheer was reserved for Paralympic gold medallist Michelle Stilwell, who rolled through the throng with the torch attached to her wheelchair to light the cauldron on stage. For six-year-old Honor Thaagaard it was an inspiring end to an evening that could have been a big disappointment. Her parents had vetoed trick-or-treating for fear of the H1N1 virus. “We don’t want to go to too many public places,” said her mother, Louise, “but we couldn’t miss this.” Honor stood on a garbage can and squealed with delight as the torch arrived. To Louise, it represents a message she wants her children to appreciate. “It gives somebody a goal to aspire to. If you dream big, you can do big things.”
There are 1,037 stops and 12,000 torchbearers on the relay itinerary, and many, many dreams. The flame is a catalyst: a constant that triggers the chemistry of those it touches. These reactions are remarkably intense, though some are prettier than others.
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