From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Let the Games Begin!


Memorial Coliseum.

Los Angeles, California.

The lighting of the Olympic Torch is the signature event of the Games. Since it appears on international television, the pressure to be flawless is immense.

Originally built to host the 1932 Olympic Games, the Coliseum had a torch spire that had not been used in at least twenty-five years.

Several weeks prior to the Opening Ceremonies, a company was selected to make the torch work. After examination, the entire torch spire and five-ring Olympic insignia had to be rebuilt. Yet, at ten days and counting, there was still no solution.

The company then phoned my dad, Ed Buckingham—a licensed engineer, flame-control expert and Olympic volunteer. With an engineering sketch that looked more like chicken scratch, Ed drew up a plan. It consisted of five flame-control devices placed strategically within the five rings. Plus he included three backup options for igniting those controls. With his plan in hand, Ed was given the go-ahead to make it work.

Fortunately, my dad had volunteered earlier in the year to work at the pentathlon event and had a security clearance. This was a stroke of volunteer luck because as the director of volunteers up until a few months before the Games, I was acutely aware of the intense security.

Now with just days before the Opening Ceremonies, Ed arrived with his tool chest of expertise, equipment and security clearance. A large man, he spent the next tension-filled days cramped in the operations cubicle at the base of the tower. Testing, rewiring and rechecking were tediously executed day-by-day to insure a perfect lighting of the symbolic torch that would be seen by more than a billion people.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony, with sharpshooters rimming the top of the Coliseum, Ed cleared his access and reached the locked and guarded door to the control room. Switching on the lights, he found that ALL the wires had been cut!

Clearly, this was a bomb scare!

The USSR was boycotting these Olympic Games. The Los Angeles Raiders football team was in nasty negotiations with the Coliseum Commission. And terrorists of any ilk could gain the attention they craved if the flame exploded, or failed to ignite, on the world’s stage.

After the federal bomb squad arrived, I got there as well. Feeling the real potential of danger, I asked Dad, “I’m your eldest daughter; do you think it’s safe for me to be here?” He calmly reassured me that security felt it was not a bomb.

Shortly after I left, agents from the Secret Service, Army Demolitions and other members of the Torch Team arrived. Bomb-sniffing dogs were released to cover all the rooms and substructure of the torch base. After a couple hours, the area was declared safe.

Yet the Opening Ceremonies had already begun!

With another sketch and only one option to insure it would light, Dad began the rewiring. Hot and under unbearable pressure, he spent the next ninety minutes crouched in the control room rewiring the torch.

As Dad worked away, he relayed his progress by walkie-talkie to a Torch Team member outside the tower. He in turn relayed it to security that passed it to the people choreographing the ceremony down on the field. A television crew installed a monitor inside the control room. As Dad made the final adjustments, the dancers and Olympians stretched it out for an extra forty minutes.

Finally, he put the finishing touches on the rewiring and pronounced it, “Ready!”

The Olympians were herded into place. “Torch Lighter” Rafer Johnson emerged and trotted around the track. Pausing at the base of the steps, he lifted the torch high and began his ascent as I held my breath until I felt I was going to pass out. Rafer rose steadily to the top.

Inside the torch, Ed was watching the television monitor. The Torch Team member on the walkie-talkie outside the tower whispered, “Ed . . . he’s lifting the torch. The flame is there!”

Insuring that the heat from Rafer’s torch ignited the Olympic torch, Ed hit the first control button and the base of the torch flashed up in flame. Using his watch and the television, he synchronized a ring of flashes by pushing the second, third, fourth and fifth buttons. The Olympic Flame exploded at the top! The crowd erupted.

Dad was the perfect volunteer at the perfect place at the perfect time and saved the day.

“Let the Games begin!”

Margaret Buckingham

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