In 2002, 12,012 Olympic torchbearers carried a single flame across 13,500 miles. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Winter Torch relay, torchbearers weaved their way through 46 states for 65 days. It even has its own Wikipedia page. Janet Peters remembers these details, and many more painstaking ones, because she has the relay map on the back of a t-shirt.
Janet, who impressively juggles managing the Writing Center, the Writing Fellows Program, Excellence at Brown, and other academic tutoring programs, was one of the 12,012 to helped the flame travel across the world to Salt Lake City. The tradition of the torch relay that makes places over a few months before each Olympics began in 1936 at the summer games in Berlin. The torch is lit by the sun using a parabolic mirror at the site of the original Olympics, in Olympia, Greece, at the Temple of Hera, which is quite cool. It is then carried a bit through Greece before making its journey to the country of that year’s Olympic games, the flame being passed from torchbearer to torchbearer, until the final carrier runs toward the cauldron and lights the official Olympic flame atop a grand staircase.
We interviewed Janet to get the scoop on her experience and what it’s like to now have an Olympic torch in her house.
As your “salient fact” at the Writing Fellows retreat last month, you very casually noted that you were a torchbearer in the 2002 Olympics. What was your exact role?
It was the torch relay, so I ran a leg of it, which is a third of a mile. The flame has to remain lit from its journey, at that time, from Olympia, Greece to Salt Lake City.
Can you explain the process?
We were gathered at Town Hall and they brought us to our designated spot. And we waited for that segment, because each person runs a segment. So you lit the next person’s torch, after your segment, and then they kept on running. I actually lit the cauldron that went on to the next city.
Is the flame run the entire way?
They use a boat on some journeys, you know, like across the ocean, or a plane, but that flame stays lit. The flame should never go out.
Once it gets to America, is it ran the whole way?
Yeah, as far as I know or as far as I can remember.
Do people run through the middle of the night?
Yes. There were night shots of people running in the wee hours. The cauldron would travel on the back of a Chevy truck so I’m sure some of that traveling would happen at night, I would have hoped for the sake of the torchbearers. But I remember seeing nighttime runners.
How did you get appointed to this position? How did you get involved?
I was nominated. All I know is I was nominated by family and friends. The nomination, from what I understand — because we never receive any of the nomination letters — was right after I had moved from Reno, Nevada to Florida and then up here to care for grandparents. I know it had something to do with that and the sacrifices I made to care for my grandparents.
Are there any requirements to be nominated?
I don’t think so. When I found out I went to the Coca-Cola site, because it was done through Coca-Cola, and also through Chevy and some other sponsors because those were the main sponsors of the Olympics. And I think it was just to nominate somebody that should be recognized. My grandfather had cancer and my grandmother had Alzheimer’s and I guess folks thought that was a major task. But I’m happy I did it.
Were you literally running the whole time?
It’s more like a slow jog. I was smiling the whole way.
Was there a crowd?
There was a fairly large crowd. I was surprised. My leg was in Fall River, MA, and there was a fairy large crowd cheering us on.
Are you an avid fan of the Olympics?
Yes, I actually am. I’m a huge sports nut.
Are you an athlete?
I used to be. Right now I’m an avid cyclist, as I’ve put down the softball glove and the bat and the basketball. But yes, cycling is just easier.
If you could play an Olympic sport, what would you play?
Oof. Softball. Summer Olympic softball, definitely. I was a pitcher.
Have you ever been to the Olympics?
No. I hope Boston is successful in their bid because that is on my bucket list.
What is your favorite Olympics of all time? Who is your favorite Olympic athlete and why?
What was it — ’76 — when the US men’s hockey team beat Russia? Let me look at what the exact date is… it was the one in Lake Placid, 1980. Lake Placid Olympics. I’ll never forget it. It was the Miracle on Ice team. So this was a big thing, back especially during the Cold War and stuff like that. The Soviets are always heavily favored and we are the underdogs, so this is a huge win. Especially during that time. It was the best win ever. That and Mary Lou Retton. She was a gymnast. She hurt her ankle or her lower leg and she ended up winning the gold.
Was the torch heavy?
No. It has some weight to it but at the time it could have been 50 pounds and it wouldn’t have felt heavy to me. Maybe five pounds. I’m not sure.
Was it hard to keep it lit while you were running it?
No. They have these brass prongs that are inside in the flame and it’s encased in brass around it. So the wind would have to swoop in.
If the flame goes out, would you get in trouble?
I don’t think you’d get in trouble but they [would] just relight it very quick. But hopefully that doesn’t happen.
Anything else you want to share?
It was probably one of the coolest events that I’ve participated in so far in my life and one that I won’t forget. I mean, it was an honor as far as I’m concerned. And especially at that time because it was so soon after 9/11 and there was a lot of talk after 9/11 if the Olympics would go on and even if the torch run would actually happen.
Everybody gets a uniform, which I still have. I never want to wear it because I don’t want it to get ruined. I don’t know what I’m saving it for.
Images via Janet Peters.