27 June 2004
Brough Scott appreciates the symbolism and an unashamed pitch for Britain’s hopes of staging the 2012 Olympics.
Youth and age and the eternal flame: Tim Henman and Roger Bannister stood on the Wimbledon steps amid the drizzle and for a few moments it was possible to dream that Britain’s sporting outlook could be sunny again.
Fifty years ago Sir Roger was the serious young doctor whose impossibly long, thoroughbred strides swept clear up the Iffley Road track to make 3 minutes 59.4 seconds the most famous record-breaking time of them all. Now he was a beaming, slightly bulky, septuagenarian coming down the royal carpet proudly holding aloft something that looked like a giant, pen-shaped silver cigarette lighter. Yes, the Olympic torch was here.
Or 140 of them to be exact. For the great Sir Roger was but the first of a whole string of people including cyclist Chris Boardman, the Sydney Rowing Eight and eventer Pippa Funnell, who were to transport the flame around the would be Mount Olympus that is Greater London. Next up was a boyishly smiling and white and blue Olympic track- suited Tim Henman standing on the second step with his own giant and as yet unlit cigarette lighter.
The Bannister-Henman handover was a marvellous mix of symbolism and chumminess. The paragon of another age and another sport passing over to the one British tennis player who is a fine enough performer and good enough citizen to fully embody the Olympic ideal was symbolic enough – the jokes were in the passing.
The Bannister cigarette lighter dipped towards Henman’s and a dinky tongue of flame popped up in answer and two Olympic flames briefly lit the Wimbledon gloom.
Then one of two Athenian hand maidens flanking Sir Roger stepped forward and rather unsportingly snuffed his flame out. The old hero hid any disappointment with an avuncular smile as he gave Henman a god-speed embrace and Britain’s most active washing powder advert set off with the torch on its journey towards Buckingham Palace and then last night’s Rod Stewart-led pop concert at the end of the Mall. Tim has had his early setbacks this Wimbledon but this was a record. He had hardly gone 10 yards when the wretched flame went out.
An earlier not so relaxed, pre-fatherhood, pre-Annacone Henman might have gone into one of his declines, but no, with all that new Roland Garros confidence our numero uno checked a moment, pressed a button at the bottom of the torch and another little flame obligingly did duty. Worries that Henman might be about to squander his well saved energy slogging across every borough from Wandsworth to Westminster lasted less than half a ball-boy lined mile before the next relay runner could be seen straining at the leash.
In their wisdom the organisers had originally intended this to be that hitherto unrecognised tennis worthy Mr Audley Harrison of the braided locks and the bum-a-month opponents. However, Mr Harrison had thought the journey from his Las Vegas base too fatiguing so the torch was entrusted to that not totally unfamiliar Wimbledonian Virginia Wade. Dame Ginny trotted happily off into the strengthening drizzle with a smile as wide as in her Jubilee year title. “Don’t run too far,” said one wag, “this route goes through Peckham’s Murder Mile.”
The fear was but brief, at 11.10am La Wade handed over to a purposeful-looking man who set off up Wimbledon Park Road in search of the assorted string of relay helpers who were set to include Kriss Akabusi, Roger Black, Sharron Davies, Ian Botham, Frank Bruno, Matthew Pinsent, Jonathan Edwards and the publicity-shy Richard Branson before Steve Redgrave trotted on to the final stage up by Admiralty Arch.
From Sir Roger to Sir Steve, a 48-kilometre, 140-runner journey around the capital ostensibly to promote this year’s Games but nakedly promoting London as a venue for 2012. By then Wimbledon will have a roof over the Centre Court. Only the rain will remain the same.