MEXICO CITY — Alejandro Reyes, a 36-year-old paramedic from Puebla, Mexico, could hardly believe what was happening: A noisy crowd cheering, applauding and straining against police tape to see him jog by with his precious cargo.
"I'm no athlete. But this is a way an ordinary person can take part in the Olympics," Reyes said Tuesday, the day he carried the Olympic torch. "And this torch means peace. So this is a way to spread peace around the world."
The flame arrives today in Los Angeles for a one-day relay across the city, which served as host of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics. Organizers say it carries a timely message, heralding the onset of the first Summer Games since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and the war in Iraq.
"We see banners and chants about peace wherever we go, no matter if it's Asia, South America, in Cape Town the other day," said Spiros Lambridis, a Greek diplomat who is the Athens 2004 organizing committee liaison to the relay. "This thing is absolutely, genuinely good."
In South Africa on Saturday, Nelson Mandela held the torch aloft in a courtyard at the island prison where he spent most of his 27 years behind bars. The anti-apartheid hero, 85, said he was "happy and honored."
In Brazil on Sunday, Pele, the soccer star, wept while holding the torch. In China last week, 3 million people pressed to see the flame on its 35-mile jaunt around Beijing. "It was absolutely beautiful," said Cheryl Cagle, manager of the international portion of the relay, "so colorful, so many children."
Helen Papadopoulos, 42, a breast cancer survivor, is among the 149 people, including Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and Ellen DeGeneres, who each will travel the 400 meters today toting the Olympic symbol.
"We were sad together over 9/11," said Papadopoulos, a math teacher at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, referring to her students. "We were sad over the war in Iraq. But we've been able to revel together and be joyous over this. The principal announced it over the loudspeaker.... It was this happy, joyous moment. The kids need more of those."
The torch relay -- purists call it the Olympic flame relay -- has become an integral part of the Olympics, perhaps more connected to the essence of the movement than the megawatt Games themselves, experts say.
There are now more torchbearers than there are athletes in the Games, says University of Chicago professor John MacAloon, an expert on Olympic symbolism -- about 11,000, compared to 10,500.
And viewing the relay costs nothing, even as the Games themselves have increasingly become "the province of wealthy people, VIPs, those that are connected and have access," MacAloon added. "So it represents for ordinary people an access to the Olympic spirit, to the inarticulate but deeply felt sense that something important is going on."
Some runners were nominated by family or friends in a corporate sponsored essay contest; others were picked by local officials in each of the cities on the relay route or by one of the various Olympic entities. Runners may purchase their torch for about $350.
Staging the relay "is like a rock 'n' roll circus," said Tim Leberecht, 32, a member of one of the flame's advance teams, "except that the torch has no attitude. And it certainly appeals to more people than any rock star would ever do."
Four advance teams, 10 to 12 people in each, have spread out over the last few weeks to the 34 cities outside Greece in the flame's path.
Each team spends four days in a city handling details -- from coordinating the relay route with local authorities to making sure the relay crew gets dinner and a shower -- then moves on.
When it's not being paraded around Rio de Janeiro, Beijing or New Delhi, the flame is kept in a miner's lamp that sits aboard one of two specially outfitted Boeing 747s. The so-called "mother flame" is used to reignite torches that go out unexpectedly, a relay official said.
One plane, called "Zeus," carries the flame and passengers; the other, "Hera," carries cargo, including BMW motorcycles that escort the flame as it is passed from torch to torch.
For the first time, the relay will travel around the world -- touching down in Africa, India, China, Japan, Australia, South America, Mexico, the United States, Canada and Europe.
Lighted by the rays of the sun March 25 at the site of the ancient Games in Olympia, Greece, the flame will return to Greece en route to Athens and the opening ceremony of the Summer Games on Aug. 13. It makes four stops in the U.S.: Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta and New York. Samsung and Coca-Cola are underwriting the 2004 relay.
Scholars sometimes struggle to explain why the flame inspires such reverence.