Off to see the Olympic torch relay yesterday morning, as it passed through Stirling – which proved more enjoyable and worthwhile than anticipated. Plenty of people, of various political persuasions and not all of them sportophobes, have been quite bah-humbug about the relay, to the extent of deliberately avoiding places while the razzmatazz has been in the vicinity. Fair enough, and my own initial reaction was along similar lines – although with basic curiosity always likely to win out.
Having now seen the curious cavalcade in action, I stand by my earlier assertion that it favours the tourism/commercial aspects – as against the celebration of athletic endeavour – more than ought to be the case. But on the day, on the street, concerns of this sort were outweighed by feelgood basics of the event: the impressive logistics and the sense of watching something that is unlikely to pass this way again for half a century or more.
The flame undoubtedly spends too much time cooped inside vehicles rather than being out in the open air – and a completely different (and considerably more difficult, admittedly) itinerary could have been planned which would have seen it mainly on the hoof. Since when, after all, has the driving of minibuses and BMWs been an Olympic event? Since when has there been a gold medal for taking a train or a gondola up a mountain?
But never mind all that – there was a warmth of welcome out on the streets of Stirling yesterday morning – and elsewhere across Scotland and the UK on other days, it would appear – that makes the torch relay worth going out of your way to see.
The start of the Stirling section, at Wallace High School, was within morning-stroll distance of where I live. The arrival of the convoy was worth seeing in its own right, with police motorcycle outriders (at least 14 of them) in full royal progress / state visit mode, leapfrogging ahead of each other to block traffic as the convoy swept through Causewayhead roundabout where the Alloa–Bridge of Allan road skirts beneath Abbey Craig and the Wallace Monument.
There was a crowd of several hundred outside the school – local adults and families, schoolkids, carers with people in wheelchairs – and a blessed-relief lack of any of scene-stealing politicians. The mood was village fête-like cheery, akin to the old days of the mass-participation marathons when people would come out simply to express goodwill and partake of the communal buzz. Some of the stay-away dissenters might well have conflated the Olympic relay and the Diamond Jubilee – but whereas there is plenty of reason to mutter about and avoid all the toadying and brain-switched-off kowtowing that accompanied the recent royal event, the torch relay was much more obviously and fundamentally of the people, and felt vastly better for it.
The mood was also helped by good weather, and by a lack of heavyhandedness from the security contingent. Expectations of rampant officiousness proved unfounded, and there was none of that infuriating scourge of organised events where locals are ordered about on their own patch by bumptious bores with walkie-talkies and dayglo tabards.
It was striking that several of the police vehicles were from the Met, but there were also Grampian and Tayside cars as well as local bobbies. The cops were trying hard – and succeeding – to be in affable mode, with the on-foot officers chatting with spectators and some of the outriders low-fiving the crowds as they drove along in front of the convoy. Doubtless there were guys with guns somewhere in the mix, in case of any terrorist torchnap attempt (or even just a reprise of the Konnie Huq carry-on from four years ago), but the overall mood was benevolent and unfussy.
There were plenty of flags – considerably more union than saltire, make of that what you will – plus bunting, home-made banners and gold-paper torches. The commercial side of things wasn’t too in-your-face, with the carnival-type convoy of blaring dancer-laden trucks advertising Samsung, Coca-Cola and the Bank of Scotland coming through several minutes before the torch itself (and a good 15 minutes when we saw the relay for the second time, across at the St Ninian’s side of Stirling – it had been to Dunblane and back in the interim – as the road hadn’t been closed to traffic and there was a certain amount of organised chaos).
As to the torch-bearing side of things, this was oddly uplifting – as indeed it ought to be given that the old flame is itself uplifted, admittedly by a succession of people kitted out in what appears to be Rubettes tribute gear, albeit without the flat caps. The torch started its Stirling-and-surrounds progression in the hands of football coach and lingerie model Rochelle McHaghney, wearing number 024 on her tracksuit top, and was later to be seen in the possession of number 040, who was probably (although it was hard to be sure) school prefect and “keen water skier” Chris Wardlaw. Both looked delighted and genuinely flattered to have got the gig.
Whether the separation of the most blatant commercial aspects and the actual torch was a deliberate attempt to add dignity to the occasion is hard to assess, but it worked well. Having the torch carried alongside megaphone-wielding crowd-hypers would have diminished the experience, whereas the way it was done felt fitting.
Never mind (for a few minutes, at least) the overly commercial aspects of the Olympic torch relay – and indeed the junketeering of the upper echelons of the IOC. Never mind that any torchbearer wishing to keep their lump of tapered metal as a memento has to fork out a couple of hundred quid. And never mind the horrible over-designed London 2012 mascot (what’s that all about? – surely John Betjeman’s teddy bear or something similar would have been an altogether nicer choice).
Never mind any of that. The torch and its entourage is worth seeing, while it’s within range. Today the various walks, runs and vehicle-transfers take it from Edinburgh down across the border to Alnwick in Northumberland. Then comes another seven weeks or so of rigorously scripted meandering further south. Forget about the gripes and the grumbling – get out there on the street when it’s somewhere near you. The torch relay is a decent half-day out and you’ll feel part of something.