The relay that carries the famous Olympic Torch from Greece to its destination every four years is the sort of thing that, if it attracts any notice at all, is seen by many as a quaint and slightly embarassing display of athletic self-importance. Everything passed off quietly when the procession came through four springs ago, but this time we are Hosts In Waiting and the journey finishes in Beijing. Suddenly it's one of the most unpredictable, high-profile spectacles that London will witness this year.
Even as the Linford Christie false start was attracting coverage, protest groups, and particularly those sympathetic to the cause of Tibet, were making plans to muscle in on the sporting bonhomie. This didn't cause much alarm until the events at Olympia twelve days ago as protestors disrupted both the lighting ceremony and the start of the relay itself. Yesterday it was reported that The Metropolitan police are aware of six different groups preparing to send up to five hundred supporters to London's leg hoping to make their point to organisers and sponsors alike. Suddenly the security of the torch merits the kind of consideration that might be given to a visiting world leader and some of those officially announced as torch bearers only hours ago are either backing out or, like popular Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq, still apparently making up their minds whether or not to take part.
While some in the media spotlight are having second thoughts most sports people involved seem to prefer to emphasise the pre-eminence of the Olympic ideal of sporting endeavour over political concerns. Duncan Goodhew, the former breaststroke gold medallist, said:
I'm appalled with what's going on in Darfur and Tibet, and that the Chinese have not yet embraced the freedoms we have. We need to encourage the Chinese as seriously as we can to come into the modern world, but I think boycotting would be a futile gesture.
The historical origins of the relay itself are not auspicious. The ancient Greek olympics had a flame burning throughout them, but no Marathon medley to bring it on site, while the modern revival of the games ignored such incendiary symbolism for 32 years before the idea was rekindled for Amsterdam in 1928. However, the first notion of making a big deal of picking the thing up in Olympia and then jogging with it en masse all the way to the stadium was the brainchild of the Third Reich as a publicity exercise for the infamous Berlin games eight years later. The route of that flame through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia reads in retrospect like a macabre statement of intent.
Twelve years later when London held the games for the first time the relay was, perhaps surprisingly, officially established as the done thing and the flame arrived at Wembley via Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium. The 7,000 km that journey took is now small change from the 130,000km plus saga being enacted this year, where we're being fitted in between St. Petersburg and Paris.
Flames at sunset in Belsize Park via io2's Flickr stream.
The plan for Sunday's proceedings is that they will begin at 10am on Sunday with an all-ticket music event outside Wembley Stadium followed by the relay of 80 torch bearers through the streets. The 31 mile route will take in Ladbroke Grove, Queensway, Oxford Circus, Westminster, St. Paul's and London Bridge before snaking back across the Thames and taking a long detour out to the 2012 games site at Stratford. Then it's back down through Canary Wharf and on to the climax at around 8pm with more musical celebrations at another ticket-only bash in Peninsula Square, North Greenwich, where the Sugababes are expected to perform. Mind you, none of the above is a complete certainty according to Met commander Bob Broadhurst:
If we had thousands of protesters who turned rough then we may take a pragmatic decision to move round them or go straight to the O2, but we will not be battling through people who are determined to stop the relay.
They will, however, be deploying around 2,000 officers at an estimated cost of £1m, including a squadron of police cyclists accompanying the relay, and that might not be the only security surrounding those who do decide to take up the torch. What with all that and banner waving protestors poised to leap up left, right and centre if you do go along to watch then the fiery thing in someone's hand might be about the only thing you can't see.