Long before the games begin, the Olympic torch runs a race of its own.
Pomp. Circumstance. Traffic snarls and imaginative new twists on the slopes. The Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games? Not yet. The Olympic Torch Relay comes first. And it sets quite a stage for the Games. The 13,500-mile, 65-day journey begins December 4, when Greek priestesses in Olympia, Greece, light the Olympic flame from the sun using parabolic mirrors. (Perhaps there is hope for Athens 2004 after all.) From Greece, the torch, kept in a special safety lantern, flies aboard a 767 to Atlanta, Georgia, site of the 1996 Games. Skipping the direct route to Salt Lake City's Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium, where it will burn from February 8 to 24, the flame then embarks on a grand, 46-state tour of the U.S.
Eleven thousand, five hundred torchbearers are carrying the Olympic flame for about .2 miles each. (If that seems a short distance, consider that the metal-and-glass torch is nearly three feet long and weighs over three pounds.) Most of the runners are ordinary citizens who were nominated by their friends, family, or strangers for having done something inspirational. Others, such as the 100 firefighers and other heroes from the September 11 attacks, were hand-picked by Olympic organizers. (The Olympic flame will also be part of commemorative ceremonies as it passes through New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.) After over 200 miles on the road each day (some of those miles in support vans), with a break for lunch, the flame will burn in small, protected cauldrons every evening at local celebrations.
Before Salt Lake, the Torch Relay will pass through every U.S. Olympic town, with many Olympians -- including ski legends Billy Kidd, Stein Eriksen, and the Mahre brothers -- participating. In Lake Placid, Olympic ski jumper Casey Colby will soar off the K90 hill, holding the flame in one hand, and Olympic bobsledders will reunite for a blaze down the track. On January 20, after winding from the Midwest to Southern California, the flame stops in the Tahoe area. After a tram ride, an ice skate, and a ski down, Squaw Valley president Alex Cushing, who helped bring the Games there in 1960, will light the cauldron before the relay moves on to Heavenly. Similar events are planned for Vail on February 1 (a ski and snowshoe), Aspen on February 2 (a run down Buttermilk), and Park City on February 7.
Perhaps more impressive are the stories of the torchbearers themselves. In Vail, Rick Bliss will hand off the flame to his college roommate, Jimmie Heuga. National Brotherhood of Skiers founding member Jack Hardy, who helped the organization grow to 81 clubs with more than 14,000 members, will run in Los Angeles. And then there's Patricia Robbins, whose son, Bryan Richmond, was a promising racer with the Squaw Valley Ski Team hoping to make the 2006 Olympic team. Last February, Bryan died in an avalanche. Says Robbins, who will be running for her son, "I felt this was a way for Bryan to be in the Olympics."