Torch Run Covers 9,000 Miles
By George Srour
Special to Scholastic News Online from the Special Olympics World Games

President of Ireland Mary McAleese, 16-year-year old Irish athlete David McCauley, and former South African President Nelson Mandela light the Olympic Torch at the opening ceremonies on June 21. Mandela then declared the games to be officially opened. (Photo: A.J. Hellickson, U.S., Global Youth Summit)
Long before the first hurdle was cleared or the first weight was lifted, another human feat captured the imagination of the European continent—the Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg of the Special Olympics Games.

On June 4, a relay team of dozens of law enforcement officers and 10 Special Olympics athletes set out on an 8-day, 9,000-mile run. Their mission? To safely transport the Special Olympics Flame of Hope to this year's World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland.

The marathon trek began in Athens, Greece, snaking its way through 15 European countries, including Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Once the torch arrived in Ireland on June 21, it had traveled through more than 130 communities. Since 1981, more than 80,000 law enforcement officers have participated in the run, which takes place every two years. In its 22 years, the historic relay has raised roughly $113 million for the Special Olympics movement.

This year's run was an international affair, as the 2003 Final Leg Running Team hailed from all 50 United States, as well as 9 Canadian provinces and 19 countries.

Warm Welcomes

The sea of onlookers in Milan, Italy, on June 7 was the largest the Flame of Hope encountered in its European travels. Not an inch of standing room was to be found in the streets of Milan when the Cardinal of Milan gave his blessings upon the Flame of Hope. Some 15,000 people came to watch 125 Special Olympics athletes walk in formation as the "Guardians of the Flame." As they took center stage, they were received by the city's mayor, church dignitaries, and several other notables before a loudly cheering crowd.

"There are not two kinds of people, disabled and able," said the Cardinal in his speech. "We are all one, we are all able."

Special Olympics Texas athlete and member of the Final Leg team Johnathan Blackmon shared the stage with the Cardinal during the ceremony.

"It was pretty cool to be up there," said Blackmon. "It's one of those things you get to do once in your life—it was great."

Further north, thousands of balcony doors, several restaurant awnings, and multiple guard gates in the city of Warsaw, Poland, flew wide open at the sound of 200 runners making their way through downtown streets. Residents, newlyweds, the city fire brigade, interior ministers, police administrators, tourists, and even the Prime Minister and first lady of Poland spared no expense in commending the mission of the Law Enforcement Torch Run and welcoming the Flame of Hope to their homeland.

"I should express my esteem for not only the work that you do, but the time you spend with those who need it," said Prime Minister Miller. "It is very honorable."

From Krakow to Gdansk, hundreds of other law enforcement officers took part in 17 satellite runs arranged by various divisions of the national police. Members from these runs later converged upon downtown Warsaw's Market Square for an elaborate cauldron-lighting ceremony. The "Guardians of the Flame" were also received by the mayor of Vienna and joined by 250 police officers for the 6-km run going past City Hall and concluding at Schoenbrunn Castle. Several dance and music groups were on hand for live performances—many featuring Special Olympics Austrian athletes.

When the torch finally arrived at Croke Park in Dublin for the opening ceremonies, freedom fighter Nelson Mandela used it to light the giant torch on stage. With that act, he officially opened the first Special Olympics World Games outside the United States.