As someone who has always carried a torch for the Olympics I never dreamed that one day I would be doing that very thing. But there I was around lunchtime yesterday, the Eternal Flame held aloft, trotting along towards Ian Botham, waiting to bat next at the Oval.
The surprise invitation had come from the International Olympic Committee three months ago. Would I like to be one of the torchbearers for the London leg of the Athens 2004 relay? It would be the first time the flame would pass through London since 1948.
Apparently they had decided I was something of an elder statesman among Olympic scribes. Athens will be the 10th summer Games I have covered.
Even for an allegedly hardened hack it proved a highly charged emotional experience. My Olympic odyssey began in Tokyo in 1964. The only Games I have missed since then were those in held in Atlanta 1996, when I was sports editing for another newspaper.
Flaming June! The Greek gods weren't smiling on south London yesterday and inevitably it rained on our parade. But spirits, like the flame itself, refused to be doused.
The 31-mile journey had begun on Wimbledon's Centre Court after the flame's arrival by chartered 747 from Paris - a city, like London, that is bidding for the right to stage the Olympic Games in 2012. Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, lit his torch from the silver lantern in which it had been transported.
But the Wimbledon weather continued to do its worst and Sir Roger, 75, had to carry the torch through the Wimbledon clubhouse rather than parade it around Centre Court.
He then handed it on to a track-suited Tim Henman and the flame was off on its eight-hour journey, by foot, taxi, bus and wheelchair through south and east London, the West End and finally to Buckingham Palace in the hands of five times gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave.
The celebrations were topped off with a free concert in the Mall with rock and soul legends Rod Stewart, Ozzy Osbourne and James Brown as the star performers. They were joined by others, including Will Young, Ronnie Wood, and Emma Bunton, performing her new single.
But the real star of the day had to be the flame itself. I had watched it lit in a moving ceremony at ancient Olympia on a sweltering April noon. Since then it has been making an unprecedented global journey, embracing, for the first time, all five continents.
London is the 21st of 33 cities on the 4,800-mile route before the Athens Olympics begin on 13 August. In all, some 11,000 torchbearers will have helped it along its way. All previous Olympic host cities will have been visited as well as those that hope to stage the Games in the future. Today it is in Barcelona and tomorrow Rome.
My own run-on part in this epic happened, by sheer coincidence, in Harleyford Road, Kennington, where I was born 66 years ago, thenbombed out during the Blitz.
Nostalgic yes, and personally moving, too, although I suspect I did not move as fast as some of the fit and famous, such as Audley Harrison, Matthew Pinsent, Colin Jackson and Sir Richard Branson.
It probably took me more time to complete my allotted 400 metres than it still takes Sir Roger Bannister to run a mile. I shuffled my portly frame towards Botham, doing my best to hum the opening bars of Chariots of Fire while glancing at the flame to ensure it wasn't singeing what is left of my hair. "From Bulky to Beefy," I smiled as I stopped in front of the former England captain, but he didn't see the joke. He was too busy wondering how to light his torch from my flame. "What do I do now?" he asked anxiously.
One of the dozens of escort runners accompanying the huge convoy of cars and outriders moved forward to remind us that we had to touch torches, rather like boxers touching gloves for the final round. These are fuelled by gas, and the flame has to be extinguished as soon as your run is over.
Astonishingly, I found myself besieged by spectators wanting to shake my hand and pose with them for photographs, even though they did not know me from Adam Ant (though someone did ask if I was Jimmy Greaves). One young mother even asked me to kiss her baby while holding the torch.
The flame had been passed to me by Parvez Ahmed, 18, one of 17 youngsters nominated by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, because of their community youth work. They get to keep the torch, unlike the rest of us who have to fork out £240 if we'd like it as a souvenir.
You have to have it, of course, as a reminder of something really special in your life, something that for me had begun with a humbling experience the evening before, when I stood in line at City Hall to collect the uniformed running gear alongside the likes of Sir Roger, the former boxer Michael Watson, now bravely recovering from brain damage, and Dame Mary Peters, who I saw win her pentathlon gold medal at Munich 32 years ago. "I don't know if I can even run 400 metres these days," she laughed.
But of course she did, as did Jonathan Edwards, Floella Benjamin, Davina McCall from Big Brother, a host of unsung heroes, and Bernie Ecclestone's missus. The Formula 1 magnate was waiting, movie camera in hand, at her starting point.
We had all been asked to nominate someone to act as a marker, a recognisable face to send you on your way. I chose my son. It happened to be his birthday, but actually it felt more like mine.
- More about:
- International Olympic Committee - IOC
- Olympic Stadium
- Rod Stewart
- Steve Redgrave
- Tim Henman
- Will Young