Deborah Hale is no stranger to a challenge. However, she admits that producing the London 2012 torch relay was one of the most colossal projects that she had ever been a faced with. When first asked to head up the project she recalls feeling overwhelmed, and it is little wonder when one considers the enormity of the task: the 2012 torch relay would ultimately last 70 days, involve 8,000 torch-bearers and cover 8,000 miles (12,000km) from Land’s End in the south west corner of England to the Shetland Isles off the north coast of Scotland.
“We’d just had the 2008 Games and everybody said that we couldn’t beat Beijing,” recalls Hale. “We were at a certain place and time in our country and also, we were in a recession. We were a very divided community and there was a great sense that the Games were based in London and not in the rest of the UK.”
Part of Hale’s challenge was to embrace the whole of the UK, made up of four nations, all of which have their own identities and diverse communities. “We were doing it to unite the country,” she says. “It was quite a daunting prospect and there were moments when I lay awake at night and thought oh no, I’ve got it all wrong. I wondered if I had my finger on the pulse regarding what the public wanted at that time and while I thought I had, I just didn’t know.”
For all Hale’s nervousness in the lead-up to the torch relay, it was as early as Day 1 that she realised it would be a success. “The moment I knew it was going to work was when I was on the plane that brought the torch over from Athens,” she recalls. “Ben Ainslie (the five-times Olympic sailing champion) was due to be the first torch-bearer and what I’d been told from previous relays was that it starts slowly and builds up. I was in the helicopter that was landing in Land’s End at 5am and there was 10,000 people there to welcome the torch. None of us could believe it.”
If Day 1 was a success, things only went from strength to strength thereafter. While a small number of the torch-bearers were celebrities, Hale was adamant that the relay should encompass a far broader sweep of the UK’s diverse population. “I feel like the Games are about sport but the relay is about the country,” she says. “I believed it was about celebrating people in the community and we strived so hard for that. Ninety percent of the people who ran in our relay were ordinary, but extraordinary people. We really wanted to celebrate the people who had given back to their communities.”
Over the course of the 70 days, there were, says Hale, so many memorable moments that it would take her a week to recount them all. But a couple really stood out for her. “David Rathband, a police officer who was left blind in the line of duty, had been nominated as a torch-bearer. But he took his own life so we asked his 13 year-old daughter, Mia, to take his place. On the day she was to be torch-bearer, she said that she wanted to wear a blindfold during her leg. The Olympic rules say that the uniform cannot be embellished in any way so we had to make a snap decision and we said ‘yes’. So she walked in her father’s honour, wearing a blindfold, and that was just amazing,” recalls Hale.
I feel like the Games are about sport but the relay is about the country
“Another memorable torch-bearer was a lady in Hull called Jean Bishop – she was called “the bee lady” because she always dressed up in a bee costume to raise money for charity. She was extraordinary. She was 90 years old and she’d raised incredible amounts of money and when she ran, the whole of her home town came out. It was amazing. We looked at that and thought - we’ve created something that allows people like Jean Bishop to be celebrated and it was so wonderful to be involved in that.”
Hale admits that during the relay, she found it almost impossible to appreciate what she and her team had produced. But looking back, she now realises what a special period of time it was for the UK, and how privileged she was to be an integral part of it. “I never dreamt that it would go quite so well,” she confesses. “I feel very proud and grateful that I was chosen and I will always consider it an honour to have been able to do that job. It was complicated, it was difficult and there were some very challenging moments along the way but I look at that moment in my life and know that it will never come again because it was completely unique. And I just feel incredibly lucky that I was a part of it.”