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Relay Ignites Olympic Spirit

Torchbearers carry the symbolic flame through Los Angeles during a star-studded, daylong pageant from Venice Beach to Dodger Stadium.

June 17, 2004|Sara Lin, Megan Garvey and Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writers

On the day after his 95th birthday, Pete Clentzos carried the Olympic torch in the city where he had competed in the world games in 1932.

Christopher Howard, 20, ran his 400 meters on an artificial limb, his left foot lost to cancer four years ago. His message, he said, was "hope."

"If I can do it, so can everyone else," said Howard, a UC Irvine student.

Father Gregory Boyle saw himself not merely as one of 149 runners to carry the torch in Los Angeles, but as a link bringing the world closer with 11,000 torchbearers in dozens of countries.

The Olympic flame arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico City early Wednesday morning aboard a plane dubbed "Zeus," with 57 days left to go on an around-the-world tour leading up to an Olympic opening ceremony in Greece.

Wednesday's stop was the first of four one-day relays planned this week in U.S. cities that have hosted past summer games (Los Angeles, St. Louis and Atlanta) or hope to (New York).

The roster of runners through the streets of Los Angeles was suitably star-studded, although many non-celebrities were chosen for their roles as community leaders or nominated by friends or family who entered a corporate-sponsored essay contest.

The day began at Venice Beach with actor Sylvester Stallone as the first torchbearer. The relay ended with actor Tom Cruise running the torch into Dodger Stadium, where two-time Olympian Rafer Johnson completed the final Los Angeles leg. It was Johnson, the 1960 gold medalist in the decathlon, who lighted the Olympic cauldron in 1984 to start the Los Angeles Games.

Along the way, comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres ran an uphill portion in Hollywood, ending in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre red-faced and drenched in sweat.

"I do work out," she joked at the end. "I thought I was in shape." DeGeneres sipped from a cup shaped like the top of a martini glass -- claiming, with a smile, that it was Gatorade.

For many who stood on sidewalks along the torch's route, it was not only the flame but those asked to carry it that held importance.

Matthew Breen, 29, said he was there to support DeGeneres.

"It's great that an openly gay person gets to run the torch," Breen said. "It's not something many people get chosen to do. It's a big deal."

Later, near the Coliseum, a couple of dozen long-ago graduates of Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights gathered to root on Clentzos, their former teacher and coach.

Clentzos, a pole vaulter in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, called carrying the torch "the biggest thrill of my life." He said the torch was "a symbol of peace. The Olympics is the only the thing that brings the world together."

From the sidelines, his former students, most in their 60s and 70s, wore their alumni pins and school colors as they urged Clentzos on with his trademark "hubba, hubba" chant.

"I had to be here. I'm here to honor him," said Carlos Ibanez, 74, Roosevelt class of 1948, who played football for Clentzos.

Others along the route said watching the torch pass was probably the closest they'd ever come to the Olympic Games. "It kind of makes you think you're part of the whole ceremony," said Karen Reily, 50, from Santa Clarita.

On North Larchmont Boulevard, Aspasia Kitchens and Electra Loutsoukos said they came out in part to honor their Greek heritage. But Kitchens, waving small American and Greek flags, noted that the crowds were far smaller than the hordes she remembered on the street in 1984 when the Olympics were in Los Angeles, and she wondered if people didn't know when the torch would arrive.

But as the front end of the entourage approached, people began to leave stores and restaurants along the busy commercial stretch within sight of the Hollywood sign.

First, young men and women in Samsung T-shirts descended on the neighborhood handing out blue balloons and Greek flags emblazoned with the electronics company's name.

Police motorcycle officers urged those lining the street to make room for wide vehicles. Flatbed trucks booming music came next, with helpers jumping from the sides to frantically hand out bottles of soda.

The overt commercialism prompted some grumbling from onlookers, including a comment from one young mother who pronounced the soft drink onslaught among the "tackiest" things she'd ever seen.

But for many, the draw remained the ideal of the Olympic spirit: the ability of the world's people to come together in peace for athletic competition.

For Boyle, known for his work with the city's gang members, the handing off of the torch among 11,000 runners worldwide held great symbolism.

"You reach across borders and territory and say: 'We belong to each other,' " Boyle said. "Mother Teresa used to say the problem with the world is that we've forgotten we belong to each other. There is nothing artificial about kinship. It's the truth of who we are."

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