St. Louis hosts Olympic flame

Friday, June 18, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- A century since becoming the first American city to host the modern-era Olympic games, St. Louis welcomed back the flame Thursday with revelry worthy of a long lost friend's return.

"The eyes of the world are on St. Louis today," Mayor Francis Slay told hundreds who gathered in the shadow of the towering Gateway Arch on the flame's second leg of a four-city U.S. tour.

Moments later, a flamekeeper fired up the torch held by actor-comedian Joe Torry, who held the fire high, circled proudly for all to see and trotted off, launching the torch's 34-mile tour of the city.

A quarter mile later, after passing on the flame to the next of what would be 125 torchbearers, Torry breathlessly reveled in "the proudest moment of my life."

St. Louis' celebration culminated in Forest Park, where the final torchbearer -- Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee of nearby East St. Louis, Ill. -- ran down a hill to light the Olympic cauldron, which was on a stage.

St. Louis' time with the flame -- bound for Athens in time for August's Olympics there -- came a day after its arrival in America, greeted by a celebrity-studded journey through the Los Angeles area.

St. Louis has hosted the Olympic flame twice in recent years, for the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996 and the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002.

St. Louis offered up a hero's welcome, preluding Torry's departure with two troupes of traditional Greek dancers. Gymnastics legends Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner were introduced to the throng, braving the swelter well into the 80s.

And off Torry went, the torch eventually bound for Forest Park.

Along the way, Bonnie Blair -- no stranger to Olympic glory -- took her turn with the torch.

The route included a pass by Washington University's Francis Field, site of the track-and-field events of the sweltering 1904 Games.

The flame is visiting previous U.S. Summer Olympic cities -- first Los Angeles and St. Louis, then Atlanta on Friday. It will be in New York on Saturday and tour Montreal on Sunday before heading overseas again.

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.

A century ago, the Olympics here featured boxing for the first time, along with a spectacle of a marathon that started in the peak of the afternoon broil. That race's apparent winner later confessed he'd ridden a third of the way in a car. Handlers for the runner-up helped him keep his pace by administering a mixture of strychnine sulfate and raw eggs with a brandy chaser.

Finishing fourth was a Cuban mailman who became something of a folk hero. With no strategy, handlers or training program, he ran in a long-sleeved shirt, street shoes and long pants, stopping along the way to practice his English with spectators. He even detoured into an apple orchard to snack.

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