Below: Take our poll -- Who do you think will light the Olympic Flame?
A crowded and at times contentious field of British lords, sirs, dames, princes, former Olympians and a certain soccer star/underwear model is vying for the honor to light the Olympic flame during Friday evening’s Opening Ceremonies. Speculation has become so heated, apparently, that the two leading contenders (bookmakers actually assign odds for this) traded public insults over their worthiness for the gig.
Sir Steve Redgrave, rowing gold medalist at an impressive five consecutive Olympics, seems to have the momentum as the favorite. But the sir descended into a row (pun intended) set off by an Evening Standard column he wrote about Daley Thompson, the runner-up favorite for the flame-lighting duties
“[Thompson] doesn't make the top five of great British Olympians,” Redgrave wrote. In that bizarre article, he went on to put himself among that top five, and also to recall a T-shirt worn by Thompson during the 1984 Olympics that said “Is The World’s Second Greatest Athlete Gay?” which was meant to refer to Carl Lewis. This compels me to point out that if we are to compare results from 1984, Carl Lewis’s gold-medal performances in the long jump and 100-meter dash were 11.4 inches farther and .45 seconds faster, respectively, than Thompson’s efforts in those events during the Decathlon competition, which combines 10 track and field events. So, keep your shirt, Thompson.
For his part, Thompson, twice gold medalist in the grueling Decathlon event, took the bait and told the Daily Telegraph that he was Britain’s greatest Olympian, adding, “[Redgrave] is a rower, but I think track and field is the toughest sport in the Olympics, which means the rewards are greater.”
You can just feel the Olympic spirit oozing out of these guys, can’t you?
Historically, the final torchbearer is a figure of national pride and inspiration for the host country, and usually also an Olympian or former Olympian. Americans will remember Muhammad Ali, visibly suffering from Parkinson’s disease as he lit the flame in Atlanta in 1996. The “Miracle on Ice” 1980 USA men’s hockey team hoisted the torch collectively in 2002 to ignite the cauldron in Salt Lake City. In the weeks leading up to those Games, speed skating legend Eric Heiden was on record being grumpy about how he was the obvious choice to light the flame.
Here is a rundown of other possibilities for Friday night:
If you want to pick a solid underdog, go with Dame Kelly Holmes. The two-time gold medalist in 2004 (800m and 1,500m track and field events)—and apparently the only female in consideration—could be the best way to silence the petty bickering of Redgrave and Thompson.
Sir Roger Banister never medaled in the Olympic Games, but he was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. That makes him a total badass, medal or not. And for that, his name is perhaps more familiar internationally than the top two favorites.
Sebastian Coe, twice gold medalist in the 1,500 meter running event and now chairman of London’s Olympic organizing committee has to be on the list. He’s a beloved Olympian in the UK, but it would be awkward for the organizing committee’s chairman to be selected for the honor. Coe himself has apparently been lobbying for Thompson, who is his friend.
The closest Prince William could come to participating in an Olympic Games is if one of his expensive royal horses makes an Olympic team. Or…if he’s selected to light the flame. I give him less of a shot than the bookmakers do, but apparently he’s in the conversation.
David Beckham has played a key role in bringing the Games to London, but the 37-year-old was left off the Olympic squad and has said himself that the person to light the flame should be an Olympian.
A last-minute, wildcard entry crept up over the past week when Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist ever to win the Tour de France. He will compete in the road race and individual time trial during the London Games. Which is part of the problem — the road event is first thing Saturday morning, making participation in the Opening Ceremonies difficult.
And finally, if organizers are aiming to surprise and impress, they could opt to employ some sort of high-tech, Rube Goldberg (who was American, not British) mechanism for getting the flame from torch to cauldron. Film director Danny Boyle is directing the Opening Ceremonies. He’s got an imagination and a few special effects tricks up his sleeve, so all options are on the table.
Ryan Quinn is the author of The Fall: A Novel. He was an NCAA Champion and All-American cross-country skier at the University of Utah. He now lives in Los Angeles.