The torch relay: Golden moment or flaming nuisance?

From superstars to ordinary heroes, carriers of the Olympic flame are inescapable
  • @tompeck

The Olympic torch received a rapturous reception as it crossed the borders of Wales yesterday, the second home nation to host the relay on its winding way to London and the Olympic Stadium. As crowds lined the streets of Monmouth to see the flame arrive on the seventh day of the 8,000-mile relay, it marked the culmination of a week in which the UK has been touched with a curious – and timely – outbreak of Olympic enthusiasm.

From Land's End to Cardiff, via Cheltenham Races and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, more than a million people have now turned out to see, amid a 350-person, multi-vehicle cavalcade, a little flame carried through the streets by a man, woman or child dressed in unblemished white polyester.

By the time the flame arrives at the Olympic Stadium 63 days from now, 10 times that number will have seen the torch – millions more than the number of tickets available to the greatest show on earth this summer.

Torchbearers so far have included stroppy sporting heroes, texting pop stars, royalty on horseback and dozens of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things to earn their moment in the limelight. The first bearer on Welsh soil was Gareth John MBE, chairman of Disability Sport Wales. Today, Doctor Who himself, actor Matt Smith, will carry the torch in Cardiff as it makes its way through 80 Welsh communities over five days.

This week it was confirmed that the daughter of PC David Rathband, the police officer blinded by Raoul Moat who took his own life in February, will carry the torch in her father's stead when it arrives in the North-East. PC Rathband had been scheduled to carry the torch in Whitburn, South Tyneside on 16 June.

For most, that brief glimpse of the torch is their Olympics. Crowds have lined up six deep on the sides of dual carriageways, and draped flags over motorway bridges in scenes of enthusiasm which Lord Coe probably didn't dare hope for. But it is also a corporate juggernaut. The torch's main sponsors arrive an hour in advance of the flame, handing out flags, inflatable noise-making devices covered in branding, and, of course, souvenir bottles of a certain ubiquitous American soft drink made from vegetable extracts.

The companies have paid a high price to associate themselves with the Olympics, and with it comes exclusivity. The "flaming torch breakfast baguette" being offered at a café in Plymouth was outlawed by London 2012 organisers' brand protection team – one of scores of examples.

But despite the best attempts of Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB – the torch relay's three sponsors – to commercialise, sanitise and otherwise hijack for their own ends the country's lengthiest street party, each area the relay has passed has been lent its own distinct flavour. It is often uncomfortably pointed out that it was Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games who swelled the significance of the torch relay carried from the fires of Mount Olympus in all its neoclassical glory. But it was Lord Burghley, the Lord Coe of the last London Games in 1948, who decided not to abandon what he called the "warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low".

Those seeking a better understanding of the UK today could do a lot worse than to keep their eye on the Olympic flame. Here are the highlights so far.

2012 torch relay: From the sublime to the ridiculous

You can fly the flag for Britain (but not for Cornwall...)

Local torchbearer Andrew Ball had the Cornish flag torn from his grasp by Metropolitan Police officers as the flame made its way from Land's End to Plymouth on Saturday. Ball unfurled the flag of St Piran as he neared the Olympic bridge but was grabbed by two policemen, who wrested it away. Locog said the seizure was an attempt to provide a "uniform experience" for all.

Eat what you like, but first get Locog permission

Officials from the London Organising Committee (Locog) seized leaflets advertising an unauthorised "Olympic breakfast" at a Plymouth sports centre café on Saturday. Also on offer was a "flaming torch bacon and egg baguette" said to break strict rules on the use of Olympic-related brands.

All aboard the bus to sponsorship salvation

For Olympics fans sick of stewards dishing out Coca-Cola, an open top "praise bus" is following the relay to most of the 70 overnight stops along the route, dishing out salvation instead. Traveling on the same day as the torch itself, organisers from the small Methodist church Escalls Chapel, three miles from Lands End, promise "an unbroken symphony of praise".

The woman who defied illness – and childbirth – to play her part

When the torch came to Bath, Eleanore Reagan, 28, was scheduled to run with it while pregnant. However, new baby son William clearly had other ideas, arriving eight days early.

Mother Eleanore, who has a brain tumour, still ran 300 metres with the torch barely a week after undergoing a caesarean section.

Husband Edward, 29, and first son Joshua, cheered her on, but baby William slept through the whole thing, blissfully unaware of the problem he had very nearly caused.

"I think he had to come last week," Eleanore said. "He knew Mum really couldn't have waddled that distance."

First it was plastic Brits, now it's flaming foreigners...

Torchbearer No 109 in the Somerset town of Taunton on Monday was Black Eyed Peas singer and presenter of The Voice, The American singer caused a stir when it occurred to spectators that he had little connection with Britain. Chelsea's Ivorian striker Didier Drogba also carried the flame four days after scoring the penalty that won the Champions League.

When Royal Wootton Bassett rose to salute a new hero

Ben Fox, 16, a wheelchair basketball player, is aiming to compete in the 2016 Olympics, but had an early taste of glory on Wednesday. The teenager, who was born with one leg, was adamant that he would not use a wheelchair and received wild cheers of support as he carried the torch through Royal Wootton Bassett using only a crutch.