Celebrity hands help pass flame around L.A. streets

Thursday, June 17, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Rafer Johnson capped a day of Olympic celebration Wednesday night, placing the Olympic flame in a giant caldron in Dodger Stadium as thousands cheered.

The flame was carried triumphantly through Los Angeles during a celebrity-studded pageant that concluded with Johnson, the 1960 decathlon gold medalist, who also ignited the flame at the 1984 Games.

Sylvester Stallone kicked off the torch relay run, taking the flame from Mayor James Hahn as the theme from his signature movie "Rocky" blared in the background. Stallone carried the torch through a cheering throng at Venice Beach.

It drew to a close nearly 10 hours later, when actor Tom Cruise emerged with it in at the downtown stadium's center field. Wearing a huge grin, Cruise ran toward left field, then down the foul line, nodding and shouting hello to fans in the stands.

"It was indescribable," he said.

Near the third-base line, Cruise passed the flame to Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Janet Evans, who passed it on to WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko near home plate.

Klitschko carried it back to center field, where Johnson returned it to home plate and placed it in the caldron.

"Twenty years ago we were all together for the Games of '84," Johnson told the crowd. "I'm so pleased to be here. I know that we will be thrilled when this torch returns to Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games."

In brief ceremonies before the Dodgers took the field against the Baltimore Orioles, each player who had taken part in an Olympic Games was introduced. Dodgers closer, Eric Gagne, also presented Cruise with a souvenir team jersey.

Stallone had handed the flame to Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. That began a relay through Los Angeles communities rich and poor, including Westwood, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Koreatown and Boyle Heights, culminating at Dodger Stadium.

"This is the proudest moment of my life," a beaming Stallone said with the Pacific Ocean in the background. "I just hope I can live up to what this flame represents, which is honor, dignity and a never-say-die spirit."

Decked out in shorts and a blue-and-white T-shirt with a laurel wreath on the front, Stallone was the first of nearly 150 runners carrying the flame, each one using their torch to ignite one held by the next runner.

As actress Ellen DeGeneres ran up a steep hill toward Hollywood Boulevard, some of her friends lined the sidewalk, holding signs reading, "Run, Ellen, Run" and "Run Faster Ellen."

"I've been practicing at home with a beer bottle," DeGeneres said as she waited at a strip mall for the flame to arrive. "I'm honored that I'm part of this."

As she slipped on her official torch runner T-shirt with "Athens 2004" and the five Olympic rings on the back, her mother, Betty, snapped pictures.

"They'll wonder what I'm doing. There she goes, trying to get attention again," the daytime TV host said as cars sped by, many with drivers oblivious to what was going on. When two buses filled with tourists drove by, DeGeneres stopped to wave to the stunned passengers.

"Ellen, we love you," one person in a passing van shouted, and several people walked up to pose for pictures with her.

The flame arrived overnight from Mexico. It will visit the previous U.S. Summer Olympic cities of St. Louis on Thursday and Atlanta on Friday, then travel through New York on Saturday and on to Montreal on Sunday. After that it will head overseas again, on its way to Athens for the Summer Games.

Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics in 1932 and 1984.

Not everyone who carried the flame through Los Angeles was a celebrity.

John Jackson, who passed the flame to DeGeneres, said he expected to be cut out of the handoff picture. But he didn't seem to mind.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said the 44-year-old principal from Calle Mayor Middle School in Torrance.

More than 1,000 people were on hand to watch Stallone leave Venice Beach with the torch, but the turnout along much of the rest of the route was light.

The flame's 46,800-mile journey began June 4. It passed through Africa and South America for the first time. The relay will make a final trip around Greece before arriving in Athens for the opening ceremony Aug. 13.

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