Rick Reilly
Thursday January 20th, 2005

Why do you always have to be so negative? Why not mention what I did right?

For instance, I did not trip with the Olympic torch when I got my turn to carry it last Thursday outside Athens.

Also, I did not burn down the Acropolis. And did I flunk a drug test afterward? No!

But you have to pick nits. You have to bring up the fact that after five continents, 27 countries, 78 days, 11,500 torchbearers and 50,613 miles, it was me who put out the flame.

That's true. But Olympic officials never should have let me near the thing! So whose fault is it?

The trouble started when so many corporations got scared about the possibility of terrorism in Athens. NBC, for instance, gave its Olympic advertisers the option of being entertained in bomb-free Bermuda during the Games, and about half of them took the network up on it.

That opened up torchbearer slots for people who had no business being around fire. Like me.

I immediately started working on Greek phrases I might need, such as Eimai edo! Kato apo ta baza! (I'm here! Under the rubble!)

The morning of the run, I got my instructions with about 50 other torchbearers. "Do not hold the torch by the top -- that part will be hot," the woman in charge actually said. "And do not go back the way the torch came. And if you want to buy your torch, it will be 360 Euros [$442], cash only."

O.K., so it's a sucker's game, but they got me. I now own an Olympic torch! I can't wait until I get it home. Imagine the possibilities. Donning the ol' uni and going backyard-to-backyard lighting neighbors' barbecues. Hanging around bars looking for people who have cigars to light. ("Oops! Sorry about your eyebrows, ma'am!")

And tell me it won't be handy if I have to lead a mob up to Dr. Frankenstein's house again.

Our group was taken by bus to the seaside suburb of Alimos. I watched as, one-by-one, the torchbearers were dropped off into throngs of happy Greeks, who rubbed the shoulders and soothed the nerves of each anxious runner for the 30 minutes until the torch came to their hero.

But when I was pushed out of the bus at my spot on the highway, there were no arms to fall into. In fact, nobody was there. Remember North by Northwest, when Cary Grant gets dropped off in the cornfield? This was lonelier than that.

I sat on the embankment and waited. Not exactly as glamorous a deal as I'd pictured. Eventually, a fat old woman with three teeth and wearing a bikini top came up and spat out what sounded like a question in Greek.

To which I replied, "No, the swimsuit issue is closed for next year, but thanks for asking."

Finally, with 10 minutes to go, citizens started coming around. Old men. Kids. A truck driver. They were mesmerized by my torch, even unlit. I let them hold it, run with it, play with it. These people are going to be about $10 billion in the hole after this little 17-day party. It's the least I could do.

Minutes later, after I lit my torch from the flame of Athens housewife Anastasia Gregoriadou, I felt suddenly swept up in everything the modern Olympics stand for -- bribery, drugs and bizarre mascots.

Actually, I was proud to be a tiny part of an amazing human chain, even in the stupid Richard Simmons shorts and headband they gave me. Proud I was passing along the same flame carried -- for the first time -- in Africa and South America, carried by Tom Cruise and Billy Mills and Miss World 2002 before me, and by Nikos Kaklamanakis to the Olympic cauldron itself not 36 hours after me.

So what do you do when you're proud? You dance! You spin 360s! You run around trying to get cabbies to slow down long enough to show them the torch!

And what happens? All that flitting around puts the flame out!

Why? In Sydney a scuba diver carried the torch underwater. In Barcelona an archer shot it 35 yards. Yet my little dance put it out?

A very large Greek man came bounding out of a trailing van and grabbed me by the shoulders while a little guy with a Zippo relit my torch. "The torch serious!" the big man yelled into my forehead. "You not serious!"

Sorry, Avery Brundage.

I finished the rest of my 300-meter run more serious than Tom Ridge, handed off the flame to a Greek TV reporter and watched everybody peel away, leaving me alone again in a very stupid outfit.

Yes, I extinguished the Olympic flame. But I checked with IOC officials, and they said it does not necessarily mean the entire Games will have to be replayed.

Man, this thing's going to be cool at concerts.

Issue date: August 23, 2004

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