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Torchbearers Live Up To The Challenge

While the Vancouver 2010 Olympics may now be over, certainly not every story of those games has yet been told. And among the stories of triumph and tragedy there’s something a little smaller, a little closer to home, and that’s the story of how more than 50 Legionnaires were recruited through the branches to help run the torch across Canada.

From coast to coast, in every province and territory of the county, Legionnaires signed up and got dressed up in the white Olympic outfit and took the torch through their communities. From Michel Albert of Iqaluit Branch in Nunavut to peacekeeping veteran Harris MacLean of Port Hawkesbury, N.S., Branch to Lloyd Jamieson of Norris Branch in Gatineau, Que., to Kevin Chambers of Centennial Branch in Toronto to Second World War veteran Lillian Turner in Alberta to Cliff Reynolds of Qualicum Beach Branch in British Columbia, members came out to show their support for Canada and the Olympics.

And what they got themselves involved in was no small effort. Here’s how the torch relay broke down according to the numbers: It lasted 106 days, from Oct. 30, 2009, to Feb. 12, 2010, and involved 189 community celebrations with about 12,000 torchbearers running, shuffling, flying, floating, walking or rolling about 22,000 kilometres across land, 1,000 kilometres across water and 18,000 kilometres in the air for a total over 40,000 kilometres travelled via approximately 100 different modes of transportation. All this took an estimated 20,000 volunteers and a budget of about $30 million.

But, no doubt, it was all done for a very good cause. The torch itself is one of the oldest and most enduring of all the Olympic traditions. It originated in ancient Greece, during the very first Olympic Games, where the burning flame was meant to symbolize the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus by Prometheus.

The tradition of running the torch across the host country, however, has much more recent and darker origins. The first modern torch relay took place in Nazi Germany in 1936, at the summer Olympics in Berlin.

Back in early December, Ron Currie, 65, of Stittsville, Ont., Branch had the great honour of receiving the torch for his run right beneath the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa. “It was incredible, it really was,” said Currie. “I was right there at the war memorial, that’s where I started, just incredible.”

Currie, an army and air force veteran, took the handoff of the torch from another veteran and then ran his 300 metres down Queen Street, being cheered on the whole way.

“The fact that a veteran handed off the flame to me in the shadow of the war memorial really blew me away,” said Currie, who’s been a Legionnaire for just under 25 years. “It was the highlight of my Legion experience.”

While the former branch president and zone commander wasn’t permitted to wear any of his Legion uniform during the run, a crew of Legionnaires did show up at the run and mostly at the branch afterwards to celebrate his participation in the event.

Even earlier in the relay, way back on Oct. 30, Barbara Fosdick, 85, a life member of Trafalgar/Pro Patria Branch in Victoria was one of the first Legionnaires to participate in the torch relay.

Fosdick is a cheerful and seemingly happy-go-lucky veteran of the Second World War, having served with the British Auxiliary Territorial Service, attached to the Royal Artillery anti-aircraft batteries.

For Fosdick, the whole event was, as she says, “a lovely adventure.”

“Doing your best is what the Olympics are all about,” she said of her state of mind upon accepting the challenge, “and so I shall do my best and remember it for the rest of my days, which I certainly will because it was a wonderful experience for me.

“How I got involved in all this was a bit of a mystery to me, to tell you the truth,” she said. “They called and said they wanted me to carry the torch and I thought about it and said, ‘that’s serious, you know, I’m an old lady.’”

But there was really no stopping her. She said she’d do it, but only on her conditions, “that I don’t have to wear shorts and I don’t have to run.”

And of course, nobody was going to argue with that. Fosdick signed up not to run, and not to walk, but to ‘walk slowly,’ a choice which would later get her into some hot water on the course.

“I had probably the best spot to run in all of Victoria,” she said. “There were all kinds of policeman and security guards. I had no idea how much security there would be. Everybody seemed so warm, wanted me to do so well, cheering me on, it was a wonderful day. But I must admit I did get a talking-to. When they sent me a form I had to choose if I would run or walk or walk slowly. I chose slow walker. But in the end the security guys were telling me to slow down, I was going too fast. The movie truck couldn’t keep up.”

Indeed, Fosdick notes that she has gone on to become something of a local celebrity for her effort.

“When one of the local reporters interviewed me, I told him about my time in the army and how I was called a gunner for my role with the batteries. I told him how I’d volunteered at 17, and eventually was posted to a battery where we became the first women who were able to assist in shooting down airplanes and were credited for having brought down a plane over the Newcastle harbour, which was quite a feat for us because women didn’t do that sort of thing.

“I told him how I’d never own a pair of these ugly running shoes in my life, but now I did. Then, I was standing on the street the day after the story came out a man shouted at me, ‘Hey gunner! I just loved those shoes!’

“I’ve lived on the glory ever since, it’s really quite smashing to be remembered this way.”


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