The Olympic torch relay: “a symbol of peace, friendship, tolerance and hope”
Vidar Eilertsen’s first experience of the Olympic torch relay came back in 1994, when the Winter Games took place in Lillehammer in his native Norway. In the following two decades he has gone on to work on 10 more torch relays, and is currently involved in the torch relay for PyeongChang 2018.
Now 60, Eilertsen initially became involved in the Olympic torch relay through his job at the Norwegian postal service, Norway Post, who were the presenting partner and organiser of the Olympic Winter Games 1994 Lillehammer torch relay. He worked on transport, security and logistics for the relay, a role that gave him a real sense of the power of the Olympic flame. “It was a lot of work to plan that relay – 75 days around Norway in winter can be a bit of a challenge, but we had a good team and a great network,” he recalls.
The flame is a symbol of the Olympic message of peace, friendship, tolerance and hope.Vidar Eilertsen
“It makes you realise the meaning of the flame and that it is a symbol of the Olympic message of peace, friendship, tolerance and hope. When people see the flame, they begin to properly realise the Games are here, and it always brings a good feeling to a nation. The torch relay can really unite the country and help people realise that it’s the whole country that’s hosting the Games, not just the host city.”
Following the 1994 torch relay, Eilertsen became something of a key figure in the organisation of Olympic torch relays, either on the sponsor side or working with the Local Organising Committee. And for the latest edition of the Olympic Winter Games, the Pyeongchang 2018, he will be directly involved working for the IOC.
Unsurprisingly, in the course of 11 torch relays he has amassed a wealth of memorable moments, but one which particularly sticks in his mind is an incident that took place during the Vancouver 2010 relay. “We were on day 76 of the relay and we were in Edmonton, Alberta,” he recalls. “In Canada, there is freedom of speech and freedom to protest, so we had had a few protests along the journey, with some calling for a ban on events being staged on stolen native land. That’s a fair angle, of course, but what was great about Vancouver 2010 was that on their board and committees, they had representatives from the four first nations, which are the first nation tribes or communities in the Vancouver and Whistler area. So they were well connected and there was a very good relationship between the organising committee and the first communities.”
“As the torch relay was approaching Edmonton, we received information that some people wanted to protest on a certain point of the route because their opinion was that the route was crossing a holy ancient site where first nation people had been buried, although it was just a normal street. I was asked to go and talk with the people and see if we could work it through because the relay is a journey of peace and we shouldn’t disrupt that in any way.
So I met with the leader, who was a first nation person, a few hours before the relay was due to arrive, and we had a wonderful discussion and exchange of information – there was a lot of respect. I told him about the Olympic flame and what the key message really was. In Canada, we went to 1,036 communities; 120 of those communities were remote, first nation communities where we went out of our way to take the flame to inspire those communities. In the end, what was supposed to be a protest against the Games and the torch relay, turned into a common understanding.
“Members of the first nation communities often carry an eagle feather as a symbol of their history and their culture and he gave me the feather as a symbol of our friendship and understanding. It was amazing. It helped to underline that the Olympic Games are about more than two weeks of sport.”
Eilertsen’s involvement with the torch relay has enabled him to travel the world and experience a wealth of different cultures. Asked to pick a favourite torch relay from the 11 he has been part of, he says that would be impossible: “Every country is so different and each one has a fantastic charm,” he explains. “It’s like if you have four kids and someone asks who you love the most, you’ll say that you love them all equally. Every torch relay has an aspect that makes it the best relay in a certain way and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.”