BILLED as “a once in a lifetime” event, the passage of the official Olympic torches through parts of our region last Thursday did, as expected, attract thousands of watchers.
The exercise, military in its logistical precision, passed through Eddleston before skirting Peebles and taking in Innerleithen, Walkerburn, Selkirk, Galashiels and Earlston.
The noisiest focus of a journey that involved 25 torch bearers was at the Gala Fairydean football ground in Galashiels where 2,000 schoolchildren, supplied with flags to wave, had gathered to witness the totemic symbol being brought into the stadium by Scotland’s most capped rugby player and proud Galalean Chris Paterson. Having been masterfully entertained for the previous 90 minutes by compere Stuart McCulloch of Radio Borders, who orchestrated light-hearted sports events involving mascots representing the various primaries present, they erupted in cheers as Chris, flanked by the ubiquitous shell-suited “security runners”, entered the arena at 1.25pm.
The speech of welcome was given by Graham Garvie, convener of Scottish Borders Council, who spoke of what the torch symbolised: the Olympic truce dating back to the 8th century BC when, during the three month period of the games, wars were stopped, legal disputes suspended and peace declared.
“Today the Olympic spirit calls all of us to make our peace with friends at home, at school, at work, in our communities and with other countries,” said Mr Garvie. “It calls us to celebrate sport and to promote healthy living and friendly rivalry in the Borders in the months and years to come.
“And when the burning flame arrives in London next month, a dove of peace will be released to symbolise the Olympic ideals and the power of sport to help build a better world through competition and friendship.”
Visibly moved by the rapturous reception he had been accorded, Chris Paterson told the media pack: “I’m struggling to find words to describe how I feel. To know that I’m bringing the Olympic spirit to the people of the Borders and Gala, especially children, is truly magical.
“Like everyone, since the games were awarded to London, I’ve been thinking about 2012 as if the day would never come.
“Well the day has arrived for the Borders and I hope it will go on to inspire some of the young people here today, if not to become Olympians of the future, then to lead healthy, happy lives.”
The journey began in Eddleston just after 11am when villager Bruce Scott and Laura Munro from Dolphinton did the honours. It was then on to Peebles where around 1,000 people watched as the torch was borne in turn by Brian Davis, Ellie Wilson, Rick Kenney from Galashiels, Alison Binns, Josh Smith from Jedburgh and 66-year-old bicycle mechanic Sandy Gilchrist, a Peeblean who has attended six previous Olympic Games.
Shortly before noon, the torch arrived in Innerleithen to be greeted by the town’s pipe band and St Ronan’s Silver Band. It was carried by 12-year-old Fraser Cowan from Edinburgh, Motherwell’s Helen Allan and, lastly, by Jedburgh’s Janet Jack, a former Scottish international hockey player.
“My nerves were jangling more than they were when I won my first cap,” reflected Janet.
The crowds were out in force, too, in Walkerburn where carrying duties fell to Andrew Christie and Toby Harris, both from Edinburgh, and Irvine’s Keith Bradley.
In Selkirk, with preparations for the following day’s Common Riding colourfully evident, the honour fell to 1980 Moscow Olympic gold medallist Allan Wells, Babs Young of Berwick, Callum Dickson of Tweedbank, Derek Fraser of Melrose, John Steede of Jedburgh, Libby Kennedy of Newcastleton, Lisa Robertson and Pauline Charles of Galashiels, Sean Walls of East Kilbride and Murray Wright from Tampa, Florida, .
On this leg of the televised journey came the most obvious evidence of the overarching influence of commercial interests.
Standing on the bedecked podium in Market Place surrounded by a huge crowd and ready to welcome the torch were Royal Burgh Standard Bearer Gavin Henderson and Provost Les Millar.
But this ceremonial welcome was cancelled at the last minute, apparently because there, in the background, was the fascia sign of local bookmaker Scotbet, a feature of the town centre for the past four years.
Shop manager Andy Bennett said if he had been asked to put a banner over the offending sign with the name of one of the games’ sponsoring partners (Coca Cola, Samsung and Bank of Scotland) he would have gladly complied.
“All businesses along the torch route had been warned not to indulge in ambush marketing and I fully understand why. I’m just sorry a great spectacle was lost when it could easily have been avoided.”
There was a similar scenario in Galashiels, where the first leg of the torch route was run by local Asda employee and fundraiser Shell Smith, when a Lucozade dispensing machine inside the football ground had a blanket hastily draped over it minutes before Chris Paterson arrived.
The torch left the central Borders at 2pm when Penicuik’s Brian Christer acknowledged the cheering crowds in Earlston.