Igniting the passion

Published January 1, 2010

MONICA DAVIS IS just 24 years old and boy, did this young Anglican snag a dream job: “Happiness Ambassador” for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic torch relay.

For 100 of the 106 days that the Olympic torch will be carried across Canada, from Victoria to Alert Bay in Nunavut, and then from St. John’s back to Vancouver, Davis will be part of a celebrations team of 53 people. This team accompanies the torch and creates community events wherever the torch goes. Not a bad way to see the country, eh?

“It’s an inspiration and an honour,” says Davis of her short-term gig. She’s put her tourist management studies on hold at Capilano University in North Vancouver, but it seems a small price to pay to help make history.

One of Davis’ duties is to “activate” crowds in anticipation of the torch’s arrival. She and her team-mates, who are employed by Coca-Cola (one of several corporate sponsors for this relay), take turns running alongside a huge RV as it heads into town five minutes ahead of the torch. They hand out Canadian flags for people to wave like crazy and bottles of pop (natch) to keep their blood sugar levels up.

When the torch arrives, it’s a huge celebration. Depending on the town and the time of day, it can include activities and food for a couple of thousand people or up to 10,000 if it’s an evening event.

Rev. Kevin Dixon is rector at St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Kerrisdale, a neighbourhood of Vancouver. Davis is a lifelong member at St. Mary’s and Dixon first got to know her when she joined the youth group as a teenager. In 2003, Davis visited an ecumenical community in the village of Taize, France, part of a group of young pilgrims led by diocese of New Westminster’s Bishop Michael Ingham. In 2004, she accompanied Dixon and the St. Mary’s youth group to El Salvador, and then joined them again in 2007. These experiences triggered a passion for travel in Davis. “I have no doubt this torch relay will be one of the highlights of her life,” says Dixon.

Turns out the Olympic torch relay is having a huge impact on the lives of quite a few Canadians. Billed as the longest domestic torch relay in Olympic history, its’ odyssey began on Oct. 30, 2009 and ends on Feb. 12. The torch will be carried by 12,000 torchbearers (Davis calls them “everyday superstars”) a total distance of 45,000 kilometres using all manner of conveyance, including dogsled, sailboat and wheelchair. It will visit more than 1,000 communities, reaching 90 per cent of the Canadian population, according to the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC).

“I think no Canadian should underestimate the power of the Olympic torch relay,” says John Furlong, chief executive officer of VANOC in an audioclip on the Vancouver 2010 Olympics website. “Mark your calendar, mark the day, mark the hour, mark the moment that the flame will be coming through your community, down your street, along your piece of highway and be sure you’re there with your family. It will be very, very special.”

At press time, a report in the Globe and Mail (where journalists are covering the Olympic torch relay “every step of the way”) told of the impact of the torch’s arrival on some of Quebec’s smallest towns. It created a vivid picture of how compelling the experience appears to be.

A teenager from a Quebec Innu reserve called the torch event “bigger than Britney Spears.” In Saint-Prime (pop. 2,700), known best for its Cheddar Museum, director-general Luc Boutin talked of how the torch is now forever linked to the hamlet’s history. “I can’t think of anything more important,” he said. In Saint-Coeur-de-Marie, (pop. 5,000), Mayor Marc Asselin compared the event to a space shuttle launch, calling it “the moment of a lifetime.”

What is it about the 2010 Olympic torch relay that has resulted in so much spontaneous joy? What does it really mean to those who see it and experience it? How can a three-foot white wand inspire such an overwhelmingly positive experience?

When the torch finally arrives at BC Place in downtown Vancouver, it will light the Olympic cauldron as part of the dramatic opening ceremony in front of a stadium crowd of 60,000. Billions more will be watching on television.

My mother will be one of those people avidly watching the Olympic games on television in her home. She’ll turn 83 just days before the Olympic torch relay ends, but she hasn’t slowed down much. A competitive athlete in her youth (track and field; gymnastics) and a phys-ed major at McGill University in Montreal, my mother recently resumed her daily fitness routine. She can no longer walk her five miles a day, five days a week, however. That ended when she was mowed down by a pack of cavorting dogs on a park walking path.

Now she has taken up swimming in a heated outdoor pool. When it snows, she just wears her shower cap and keeps going, for 90 minutes. Her own mother-our beloved Nana-was active until a few weeks before she died…at the age of 104!

If my mother were Monica Davis’ age again, you can bet she’d give her eye teeth to be running alongside that RV, whipping the excited crowds into a frenzy. As it is, she will be cheering from the sidelines, feeling connected in the same way many other Canadians will: electronically.

Sure, the Olympics are not all fun and games. There’s the matter of athlete doping, judging “irregularities” and as spectators from around the world descend upon Vancouver-Whistler, the problem of human sex trafficking has once again reared its ugly head. At a recent press conference in Vancouver, Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops issued a strong statement and we’ll report on this issue further next month.

As an exercise in national pride, however, the Olympic torch relay and the Games themselves serve to remind us of what it feels like when we come together as our best selves, allowing a single, magnificent human spirit to soar. We feel full of hope, full of compassion. We are all young, united, our differences forgotten. We are full of…life.

Where will you be when the torch passes by your community? Will you be cheering, too?

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