From New York to L.a. Americans Are Burning to Carry the Olympic Flame

updated 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As the sun climbs over New York City at 9:30 a.m. on May 8, international Olympic officials will place a long-distance call to Athens, Greece from the lawn in front of the United Nations building. The telephone circuit will transmit the energy of the Olympic flame (via a "heat reading" device and underwater cables) from Olympia to New York, where it will be connected to a large, gas-fired caldron. As the caldron catches fire Gina Hemthill, 22, granddaughter of black Olympian Jesse Owens, and Bill Thorpe Jr., 27, grandson of American Indian Olympian Jim Thorpe, will light the torch and run it for the first kilometer of its journey to Los Angeles, site of the 23rd Olympic Games. Running the second leg of the 82-day marathon relay, spanning 15,000 kilometers and 33 states, will be 91-year-old Abel Kiviat, America's oldest living Olympic medalist (see story page 66). As the flame crosses the country it will pass through the hands of thousands of runners from all walks of life, including a member of the Hell's Angels. Gus Christie, 37, a five-mile-a-day recreational runner and president of the notorious biker club's Ventura, Calif. chapter, says he'll carry the torch "to show the country that we support the Olympics."

Thirty-one days after leaving New York, as the flame passes through Kansas, it will be handed on to 8-year-old Amy Haas, someone for whom participation in the Olympic Games seemed one of those goals destined to remain forever out of reach.

Handicapped by cerebral palsy from birth, the second grader from Stillwell has balance problems and a slight speech defect. But on June 8th Amy will carry the flaming torch for one kilometer near her hometown, another link in the relay intended to raise money for youth organizations such as the Boys Clubs of America, the Special Olympics and the YMCA. The right to carry the torch has been sold for $3,000 a kilometer, so far raising nearly $12 million, all of which will be donated to charitable organizations. Amy's father, real estate man Robert Haas, a long-distance runner, originally thought of joining the Torch Relay but decided Amy's participation would be more consistent with the relay's "legacy for youth" theme. "Carrying the torch says I'm kind of special in a very special way," says Amy. "I can prove to others that I can do things mostly by myself."

The relay, however, has been controversial, with accusations flying between the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) and the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC), which guards use of the flame kindled in Olympia, 200 miles southwest of Athens. Charging that selling portions of the relay to sponsors was an undignified commercialization of the Olympics, Olympia Mayor Spyros Foteinos, 46, had implied that the flame's departure from the Games' ancient site might be blocked. "The flame for us is a sacred thing. It is not for sale," he declared. "When the flame passes by, people will not be cheering for its message, which is peace, but for those who had the money to buy it." Lately the Soviet Union has voiced its own objections to the "uncontrollable commercialization" of the Games—one of a series of complaints over L.A.'s staging of the Olympics.

The LAOOC has tried to mollify Moscow, but officials ridiculed Foteinos' charges, pointing to the charitable nature of the enterprise and to the guidelines issued by the Torch Bearing Committee requiring that "all advertising...be in good taste and not demeaning or in derogation of the Olympics." At any rate, the HOC agreed last March to "ensure the smooth and traditional transfer of the flame" from Olympia as long as no more than 4,000 kilometers were sold. "We've made our point," says Aris Aragnos, Greek cultural attaché in L.A. Providing that Foteinos' more intransigent supporters don't barricade the streets, the flame will be carried in a stately procession from the ancient ruins of the temple dedicated to Zeus and Hera in Olympia, where the Games first were held nearly 2,800 years ago, to its transmission site in Athens.

Every runner in the relay will receive his or her own two-and-a-half-pound propane-fueled torch (it burns 50 minutes) to keep after the run. Inscribed with the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius, (Swifter, Higher, Stronger), each torch has a band that can be engraved with the bearer's name. The route will include at least 40 major cities, among them Boston, Dallas and Seattle. When a sponsored runner isn't carrying the flame, 200 "cadre" runners picked for their athletic ability from the ranks of AT&T, the relay's main backer, will keep it moving.

"I think the American people are going to rally around this like nothing you've seen for a long time," says Richard Boehmer, who's managing the relay for AT&T—and running a stretch of it himself.

On the following pages PEOPLE looks at some of the torchbearers in the cross-country run.

Kentucky's Marines chopped wood for a chance to carry the torch

They won't be running all the way from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, but a squad of some 50 Marine officer candidates will form a fleet-footed honor guard for Chris Buehner, 16, when he carries the Olympic torch for one kilometer on behalf of his Louisville, Ky. Boys Club. "We thought it would be a nice gesture on our part," says Captain Daniel R. Miller of their decision to have a Boys Club member bear the flame. "Besides, how were we going to choose which Marine should run the torch? Throw it up in the air and see who caught it?" Instead they chose Buehner, a Shawnee High School 11th grader from the city's Portland neighborhood, who won last year's three-mile Portland Youth Run.

Miller and Captain David J. Breen (above, right), who run Marine recruiting offices in Kentucky and southern Indiana, came up with the idea of sponsoring a kilometer when they heard about the torch marathon on the radio last fall. A raffle netted only $2,611, so the Marines dispatched officer candidates to Old Louisville, the historic district south of downtown. There they chopped down unsafe and unwanted trees and sold the wood for $65 a cord to raise the rest of the $3,000 fee.

Capt. Miller hopes the run will "re-seed patriotic values. Marines are always doing things like this," he says. "They believe in the traditional values: Corps and country, God, Mom and apple pie."

Seventy-two years later Abel Kiviat runs again

In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Abel Kiviat came within a whisker of the gold medal in the 1,500 meters (below, right). He took the silver, but if he ran the same race today, Kiviat recognizes, his time—3 minutes and 56.9 seconds—would probably place him dead last. Now America's oldest living Olympic medalist, he hopes to hold the torch high when he carries it in New York City. "I'm not actually running that distance," he says. "I'm jogging. You don't expect a 90-year-old man to run a race, do you?"

Make that 91. The eldest of seven children, whose parents operated a general store, Kiviat took up middle-distance running in 1909. "Don't compare us with the athletes of today," says Kiviat. "They live in Colorado Springs and have their medical and food taken care of. We had nothing. Training was much simpler then."

Training or no, the great-grandfather of three looks far younger than his years. "Once you learn to take care of yourself, you don't lose it," he says. Having outlived two wives, Kiviat lives alone in a Lakehurst, N.J. retirement community, allowing himself one massive stogie a day and an occasional scotch on the rocks. "It's a wonderful honor," he says of his upcoming torch run, "but it doesn't pay my bills. I never got a nickel."

Fanatic Wayne Deegan never burns out
Wayne Deegan, a shy housepainter from Pottstown, Pa. (a depressed industrial town of 23,000 about 45 miles northwest of Philadelphia), lives for one thing alone: marathon running and the victory medals it brings him. "He doesn't talk much, but if you get him talking about running you can't shut him up," says his mother, Dolores. "He runs when he's sick. Nothing stops him." Since joining his high school track team in ninth grade, Deegan, 24, has run in 16 marathons (best time: 2 hours, 30 minutes) and last year, as Pottstown's most distinguished long distancer, received a sponsorship from his hometown paper, the Pottstown Mercury, which had conducted a front-page appeal to raise the $3,000 he needed. Among his other feats, Deegan has gone the distance in two New York and three Boston marathons. Deegan's dedication to the sport verges on the fanatical. He runs every morning and evening for two hours at a stretch. ("I'm up to 100 miles a week but I'm gonna do better," he says.) He has no girlfriends ("I haven't got time") or even friends ("Runners in my bracket don't have friends"). He even insists upon standing up during interviews. "Runners," he explains, "never sit down."

Bruce Jenner is out of the cast and in the run

Once an hour the announcement blared over the P.A. system at Caesar's Tahoe Hotel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nev.: "Win the chance to run in the 1984 Olympic Torch Relay. Fill out an entry and place in the special box."

Yes, folks, Caesar's purchased 50 kilometers of the Nevada run and gave one away every Sunday for seven weeks, donating the rest to local organizations. One runner, however, was designated—1976 Decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, 34, who signed a promotional contract with Caesar's to run in the relay. Proving that superathletes are human too, Jenner broke his leg falling off a motorcycle. With the cast off and his leg mended Jenner is now ready to run the flame from Nevada into California. "I will receive the torch from some Nevada public official and hand it off to some California public official," he says. "It'll be interesting to see if politicians, who know something about running for office, can really run."

Jenner is so impressed by the handling of the Los Angeles Olympics that he is willing to do something he is usually loathe to do—run. "I hate to run," he says. "I don't run. I can't stand running. And anyway I know people will laugh at me when they see my knees. But it's for a good cause, so I'll do it."

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