Carrying A Torch For The Heartland

Ask folks around Scottsburg, Ind., for an event as weighty as the 1996 Olympic Torch run and they'll tell you nothing comes close--except if you go all the way back to 1812. That was the year of the Pigeon Roost massacre, when Indians slaughtered 22 townsfolk. Not that Scottsburg hasn't had its share of big events: the girls' state basketball championship in 1989, the great flood of 1993, the feed- mill fire of 1987. But it's the Olympic run that gives the town a sense of importance that finally eclipses the Pigeon Roost tragedy.

Since it began in Los Angeles, home of the 1984 summer games, on Apr. 27, the torch run has been generating huge crowds as it makes its way across 42 states during its 84-day, 15,000-mile journey to the July 19 opening ceremonies in Atlanta. From the Coliseum in Los Angeles to the space needle in Seattle to the St. Louis arch and Churchill Downs in Louisville, the flame is burning its way through America.

But it's at dots on the map such as Scottsburg (pop. 5,000) where the real Olympic spirit is found. That was immediately clear to me as I carried the torch into town, turning the corner toward Scottsburg's town square. People five deep at curbside watched the torch caravan pass, waving American flags in the wind and chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A." at the top of their lungs. I passed children holding hand-drawn signs with "Go America's Team, Win in Atlanta." I passed nursing home residents wheeled to their front lawns by members of the Moose Lodge.

FAMILY WATCHING. On both ends of my run, I met local heroes who were chosen to represent the ideals of their communities in the torch relay. The flame is passed from one torch to the next, with each torch-bearer covering anywhere from a quarter- to a half-mile. I received the flame from Orlo Bloomquist, an activist in nearby Jennings County who sponsors a sports festival for young people. At the end of my 600-yard run, I passed the flame to Jonathan White, a high school All-American cross-country runner who ranked 14th in the nation.

When Olympic officials agreed to let me write about carrying the torch, they told me the run would be a moving experience. As a journalist, I was skeptical. But running down Highway 31, my wife, children, and siblings cheering me on, I saw they were right. While I concentrated on holding the four-pound torch at the correct angle and keeping pace with the torch caravan, I relished the sense that I was part of the true Olympic spirit. I was not just another consumer sucked into the $1.7 billion marketing extravaganza back home in Atlanta, where tickets for the opening ceremonies cost $600 each, billboards all seem to have an Olympic theme, and everything from credit cards to fast foods has an Olympic tie-in.

The torch's passage through Scottsburg was the capstone of a weeklong celebration here that included a pig roast, an only-in-Indiana euchre tournament, and a clog dancing festival. High schoolers treated the town to an exhibition of creatively painted pickup trucks. The star vehicle had ghouls airbrushed on the sides, a "vampire" license tag, and a custom-made coffin in the bed fitted with stereo speakers.

For Scottsburg, the torch symbolizes a renaissance. Like many small rural towns, it took the 1980s on the chin. When construction stopped on the nearby Marble Hill nuclear plant, unemployment passed 20%. Half the storefronts on the town square stood empty. It was then that Mayor Bill Graham gave up his mobile home sales business to spearhead a drive to help Scottsburg rebuild and attract outside companies. He recently traveled to Japan to lure suppliers for a new Toyota Motor Corp. truck plant nearby. Other businesses have already been recruited, and the town square is bustling now. Unemployment is just 6%.

So it's not surprising that Scottsburg jumped into the torch run with both feet. When Dale Martin, owner of Coonies SuperValu grocery store, heard last September from his Coca-Cola Co. distributor that Scottsburg was on the torch route, he raised $2,000 from 15 businesses to fund the celebration. Brent Bill, head of the United Way of Scott County, recruited volunteers and lined up so many portable toilets that "I feel like I'm the port-a-potty king of southern Indiana," he quips.

Martin, who whipped up enthusiasm by speaking to school children and helped put together a volunteer band, often worked 15 hours a day on the run, turning over the grocery store to his wife, Alisa. "It's been much bigger than I thought," he says. "But the opportunity to have the Olympic torch pass through Scottsburg in my lifetime is something I'll never forget."

Martin played the organizing effort by the book--the 91-page guidebook that Coke gave him. Coke, which is spending about $15 million to sponsor the torch relay, in addition to its $40 million Olympics sponsorship, leaves little to chance. Its book covers everything from forming a city task force to building crowds to hanging banners.

Even minute details of local celebrations are scripted by Olympics officials. The five speeches made while the torch visited the Scott County fairgrounds came directly from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, with orders not to alter a single overwrought word. Frankly, I felt Scottsburg's county-fair queen did a more heartfelt job with the "behold the flame" paeans than did the relay official who uttered the same speech at Louisville that night.

Coke officials advised Martin he would need 200 volunteers to dispense free soda from backpacks shaped like Coke bottles. Martin says Coke employees policed Scottsburg for the Pepsi-Cola banners that showed up mysteriously at other towns on the route. Cola wars rage in Middle America.

PRATFALLS AIRED. It's not just Coke that's got a green eye on the torch run. Before we runners got a briefing on the need-to-knows of torch bearing--where to hold the flame, how fast to run, whether to pose for pictures--we first learned the names of the 10 corporate sponsors supporting the run. So it was ironic to watch an official remove sponsors' pins from a cap that Scottsburg community hero Shorty Smith wore for his run. Commercializing the relay is verboten, he explained.

Catcalls protesting corporate sponsorships are just one reaction the relay has encountered. Anatomically correct statues of male Olympians at the torch's L.A. ceremony caused a flap. In Indianapolis, anarchists used the torch rally as an excuse to burn an American flag. The media have covered it all. When a horse threw a rider on the Pony Express route, a video clip of the mishap made newscasts across the country. The bicyclist who dropped the torch crossing a bridge in Tacoma was invited to two late-night comedy shows.

Those who criticize commercialization of the torch relay miss the point, since it's common sense that companies want some return from their sponsorship money. Wrapping themselves in Olympic rings goes beyond selling products, however. Companies are buying into the ideal that the torch, like the Olympic Games themselves, transcends commercialism. "We try to maintain the sanctity of the flame. It's not just trying to get the logo splashed everywhere," says Stuart Cross, Coke's vice-president of worldwide sports.

In many ways, it has fallen to the torch bearers themselves to reinforce the Olympic message. Near Los Angeles, Olympian Gail Deavers learned that a community hero could not afford to buy his torch; she kicked in the $275 that runners must pay to own the keepsake of their moment of Olympic history. In Yuma, Ariz., a wheelchair-bound torch carrier secretly underwent exhaustive physical therapy so he could climb out of his chair, lash the torch to a walker, and thrill his community with his "run." In Milwaukee, a torch bearer who had received a bone marrow transplant took over the flame from a stranger: the marrow donor who had saved her life.

Scottsburg had its own poignant story. Shorty Smith's aunt was killed in a car wreck while she was driving to see him run. "She would have wanted me to run anyway," Smith told me.


For me, the power of the Olympic flame hit hardest after runner Marcy A. Donohue carried her torch out of sight. As Donohue left the fairgrounds, I was surrounded by children, farmers, and businesspeople. They all wanted one thing: to touch the torch, to feel its Georgia pecan handle, its 24 reeds of burnished aluminum, its gold-plated bands bearing the Olympic insignia and names of the 24 host cities of the modern Olympic Games. One woman even put her baby's hand on the handle. For them, the flame was a magical part of the Olympics, a part of the games that had come to visit them. In places such as Scottsburg, optimism and idealism are more than just words. They're a way of life that does honor to the Olympic torch as it passes through town.

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