At some point each day for the last three weeks, I’ve sat down to pen this. I’ve never got beyond five lines. At first it was perspective – I had no time to myself for five days afterwards, so no chance to reflect. Then it was distraction – who could sit down and write while you have the option to watch every second of every Olympic sport? Finally, it was that nagging, inadequate feeling that I’ll never find the words to do it justice. The exact feeling I’ve got right now – only this time I’m not going to stop.
I’ve decided to try to tell a VH1-type ‘behind the flame’ story. A day in the life of an Olympic Torchbearer. It’s a story in three parts, and as it was a pretty long day, please forgive me if it takes a while.
None of it is real. I’m still pretty sure that none of it ever really happened. When I went to sleep on Wednesday 25 July, I returned to my sleep-walking days and headed straight through the back of the wardrobe into some weird Olympic Narnia, where people in London are nice to each other, and the Lion is on every shirt you see. When I come back, I’ll discover that I didn’t carry the Flame the day before the opening ceremony of a home Olympic Games. I didn’t launch a new campaign to raise £1million for LLR with the people I love the most. At the same time I’ll find out that Britain didn’t just throw one of the best parties the world has ever seen, starting with an opening ceremony where, for once, we didn’t speak in a land of hope and glory voice, and celebrated who and what we really are.
Thursday 26 July. The pips to start the Today Programme. 6am. Far too early. Reach for the snooze button, roll over, close your eyes. 6.10. Why is it 6.10? I’m not working until 9 and I’m only 20 mins from the office. Close your eyes, but not quite back to sleep. John Humphreys mumbling about something. G4S... Can you wear Nike trainers...Lord Coe later...last day of the Torch Relay...
Last day of the Torch relay. That’s me! It’s here. Rush of blood to the head. Reach for the agenda:
7.20: Live interview, BBC Radio, St Pancras Station
10.30: Collection Point, Harris Academy, Peckham
11.45: Torches distributed, roadshow departs
11.55: Flame lit
11.59: Pass on Flame, return to bus
13.00: Return to Harris Academy
13.30: Media with LLR
14:00: ITV London Interview
14.30: Meet family and friends
17.00: Arrive CAFOD for Leading Light Campaign Launch
19:00: Leading Light Launch starts, CAFOD Roof Terrace
21:00: Leading Light Launch end.
21:15: Leading Light Launch Afterparty, Grand Union Roof Terrace, Kennington
Come on Dom, time to get your arse in gear. Biggest day of your life.
As usual I was on the last minute. My mate Paddy, who ran Hadrian’s Wall with me as part of the Mad Hatters Challenge and had come down from Manchester with the other lads to share in the big day, came to St Pancras with me. We sprinted to the station, and just about made it. No time for a coffee. Still half asleep.
We got there just in time. I had no idea what to expect, but the place was electric. There were people everywhere, with a bandstand in full flow at 7am, live radio broadcasting under giant Olympic Rings. Apparently the torch would be passing through any minute. I headed for the Rings, and made it just in time for my slot. Before I knew it I was ushered into a seat next to Paul Ross and Gabby Roslyn, ears wrapped in headphones, talking into a microphone with a green light in front of me.
I’m not sure if it comes across, but while we spoke I swear I felt the beginnings of a breeze. It would be a whirlwind before long.
Out of nowhere the flame appeared. It was the first time I’d seen it – the first time I really got a sense of what it meant to people. Wow. I stood back, smiling, shivers down my spine, excited, terrified. Looking at the crowds, feeling like I knew a big secret and couldn’t tell anyone, which makes you want to blurt it out. Four hours to go.
I needed to get home and pick up the lads. They’d come down from Manchester the night before, along with my family, and would be staying until Sunday. Train cancelled. Please God no, not today. Next train delayed. Typical First Capital Connect! Absolutely typical, doing your best to destroy my day.
As I waited, I glanced at my phone. 23 text messages. The Twitter icon lit up, Facebook flashing. “Good luck”, “see you there”, “better not drop it”, “where do I need to be”, “what time are you on”, “we’re so proud”, “don’t fall over”, “city are still s**t”, “go on Gog”, “can you get some milk on your way back?”
Wow. I don’t even know some of these people. What’s going on?!
Back home, and time to whip the lads into shape. “The trains are knackered so we’re getting a taxi – it’s a special day, it’s on me, come on we’ve got to go, I’ve got to be there in 45 minutes.” Trainers, check. ID, check. Phone/wallet/keys, etc. “Come on!”
We arrive at the Harris Academy, hand over some cash and climb out. Where’s the door? Liam: “Mate, this place looks dead to me – there’s no-one here. Are you sure this is the Harris Academy, Peckham?” That’s what the driver said, it must be. We get round the side. The gate is locked. There really is no-one here.
Look up at the sign: Harris Academy, Dulwich. Oh no. Please God, no.
He’s brought us to the wrong place. Today, of all days, he’s brought us to the wrong bloody place.
Look round. Where on earth are we? HOW THE HELL DO I GET TO PECKHAM?! Panic. Don’t panic. Think it through. 15 mins until the deadline. I can’t believe I’m going to be late. This is a disaster. Come on Dom, think it through.
First, I called the taxi firm and told them what I thought of the driver. It felt bad doing it, but felt much calmer afterwards. Had a quick look at the bus stop – the 12 takes us to Peckham. Progress. I think I remember the way from there. Come on lads, the bus is here. It was crawling. Surely we can walk faster than this! I am not much of a one for stress, but I was seriously stressed. We got off and started walking. Faster and faster. I think at one point I jogged. Then, 2 minutes to go, a mirage in the South London desert.
The Harris Academy, Peckham.
That’s when real life stops. There are all kinds of people milling around, and you have to walk up to reception in front of all of them and talk through a glass screen (which means you have to talk extra loud) “Erm...ahem...erm excuse me. Excuse me, sorry. Erm, I’m carrying the...erm...I’m carrying the Olympic Torch today and I don’t really know where I need to go or what I’m doing. Can you help me?” Suddenly everyone is quiet. Everyone is looking at you. Glance outside and see the lads outside, cigarettes in hand, laughing away. I felt like a clown. “This way, Sir”
The wind is picking up speed.
The next hour flies. Your uniform is thrust into your hands. They check your passport and tick you off, check if you’ve bought your torch or still need to pay. They point you to the Headmaster’s office – that’s where the men can get ready. Re-emerge all in white, go and see the lads. A few photos. Back into the holding room, swapping stories with other Torchbearers. Everyone nervous as hell, but everyone trying to play it cool.
The briefing starts. They tell you about how the buses will be five minutes ahead of the Torch, and how you’ll be dropped off at your ignition point. There will be people everywhere, they tell you: taking your photo, passing you babies, even trying to grab your torch. You’ll have to look at the media truck for a minute while they light your flame, then you’ll be off. The crowds will be in the road, but don’t worry, the security team will look after you. And don’t worry about your speed, just listen to the security team, they’ll tell you too fast or too slow. You’ll be fine. You’ve got 9 seconds to get back on the bus when your torch is extinguished. There will be someone there to help you, they say. It might be a bit rough but go with it, we’re on the clock.
Finally, make sure you’ve used the toilet before we go. There aren’t any on the bus, and you’ll be on it for well over an hour. For some reason, that seemed like the most important point. It’s strange how much in those situations, our brains search for the every-day. A comfort zone. Something familiar. Something we can relate to.
Time to go, and we’re into the car park. The sponsors’ buses are rolling out, but the security team is playing football, trying to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible. Torchbearers stand around in a group, quiet, nervous. We’re encouraged to start telling our stories, and sharing the day, but it’s like being at school when you don’t want to put your hand up. The ice broke, we started sharing. Started to relax.
“Torchbearer 65, step forward please”. Hang on, that’s me. I step forward.
“Here is your Torch. Everybody give him a big cheer! [Big Cheer] Come on, off we go”
And off they went.
To be contiuned...