Olympic Idol

Who will carry the flame for Britain?

On the lustrous afternoon of July 29, 1948, John Mark entered London’s Wembley Stadium, carrying the Olympic flame. A tall, blond, radiantly handsome fellow, he wore a simple white uniform and, with the heavy silver torch steady in his right hand, ran a circuit of the track before lighting the cauldron that would blaze for the duration of the Games.

Men applauded, women swooned. Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Dutch sprinter who went on to win four gold medals at those Games (and who was married, with two children), was overwhelmed. “He was a magnificent specimen of manhood,” she later recalled. “I tried to arrange a rendezvous with him … but I was told he was too shy to meet me. What a pity!”

The Adonis was hardly an Olympic hero. Despite having been a good quarter-miler at Cambridge University, Mark had failed to qualify for the Olympic team. When he stood before the world to light the cauldron, he was a nameless medical student, an understated symbol of what came to be called Britain’s “Austerity Olympics.” While Mark’s athletic résumé didn’t earn him the job, his looks probably did. “The idea behind the decision,” says the English track legend Sir Roger Bannister, “was that they should choose an anonymous person to represent the youth of the world.”

Ever since, we’ve sought other attributes in our cauldron-lighters. Four years after Mark’s moment in the sun, the Finns appointed their running hero Paavo Nurmi to perform the ritual, beginning a trend of choosing sports celebrities—or at least personalities whose stories resonate with the public, and whose selection is often kept under wraps to build drama around the opening ceremonies.

Mark died in 1991, having never spoken to the press about his lap with the torch. But his alternate that day—should injury have befallen him—was John Fairgrieve, now 86. Fairgrieve remembers how the two practiced in the stadium “two or three times” in great secrecy (although Mark was chauffeured to those rehearsals in a white Rolls-Royce, hardly inconspicuous).

Today, as Londoners prepare to open this summer’s Olympics, Britain’s selection for the cauldron-lighter is similarly furtive. Inquiries to organizers on this subject are met with incredulity, as if one had asked the prime minister for the nuclear codes. As always, the chosen man or woman—almost certainly an athlete, a well-placed source told me—will communicate to the world a good deal about the host nation. That was the idea when the Nazis created the modern torch relay for the 1936 Games, adding some extra pomp to the tradition of the Olympic flame, which has its origins in the ancient Games (symbolizing Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods) and was reintroduced to the modern Games in Amsterdam, in 1928. The Third Reich staged a race from Olympia to Berlin, featuring Aryan runners traversing several countries that would later be subsumed by the German imperial project. The event, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, concluded with the cauldron-lighting by the little-known middle-distance runner Fritz Schilgen, chosen by an “aesthetics commission” for his graceful running style.

While nefarious undertones have disappeared, the pageant’s nationalistic symbolism has remained. In Atlanta in 1996, organizers picked Muhammad Ali—the epitome, they may have hoped, of fortitude, athletic greatness, and racial harmony. In Sydney, four years later, the aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman lit the flame, 10 days before winning gold in the 400 meters. Her selection seemed at once an emblem of Australia’s turbulent past, of its athletically competitive present, and, maybe, of its more equitable future. Perhaps most poignantly, the 1964 Tokyo organizers selected a symbol of resilience: Yoshinori Sakai, an athlete born in Hiroshima the day the city was leveled by an atomic bomb.

What does Britain wish to say about itself at the 2012 Games? Early in the year, the bookies’ even-priced favorite (yes, you can wager on the cauldron-lighter’s identity) was Steve Redgrave, the five-time Olympic gold-medal rower—a worthy, if rather dull, choice. Redgrave, it could be noted, represents toil. Perhaps the most interesting thing he has ever said was uttered after his fourth gold: “Anybody sees me going anywhere near a boat, you’ve got my permission to shoot me.” He later rescinded, and won his fifth gold in Sydney. Nobody shot him.

A motley lot of additional candidates all come with problems: too outspoken, too unheralded, too old, too young. A special kind of persona is needed to transfix the world, and we Brits have no Ali. Plus, a celebrity might not sit well with the times. The country is in a funk: buffeted by economic austerity, a divided government, and a roiling press scandal.

We could do worse than look back to a similarly depressed moment in our history. Although you could argue that the man who broke the four-minute mile in 1954 is a representative of Britain’s imperial past, Roger Bannister enthralled a monochrome, post-war nation. He appears to be a good value, at 3-to-1 odds. Indeed, he may have dropped a hint when I spoke with him on the telephone. After I told him about the wall of silence I had encountered on this subject, he laughed. “You’ve got as close to it as you will, I think.”