On Saturday, the Commonwealth Games Baton Relay is coming to a park near our Brisbane home, just four days before the Opening Ceremony on the Gold Coast. This relay is the longest in history, covering two hundred and thirty thousand kilometres and visiting every Commonwealth nation and territory. That’s quite something.
That was when people first began to talk about Brisbane “coming of age”. They talked about it again in 1988, during Expo. In 2018 we must have really come of age at last, because no one talks about it anymore. (Now we even have an international TV series located in Brisbane, “Harrow”. It’s fun to do what people in New York and London have always been able to do – play “Spot the location”.)
I’ve been reading up on the 2018 Baton Relay. It’s traveling all over Queensland, and most of the way it goes by air: Cooktown one day, Mount Isa the next.
Each Baton bearer carries the torch for two hundred metres. They don’t have to be sports people. The list of criteria includes words like aspire, inspire, contribute and achieve. In each town there is a celebration when the baton arrives. A lovely thing to think about – all those parties. Yesterday Augathella, today Barcaldine, next week up north to Yarrabah and Ingham and Emerald. I hope Ingham has dried out before then.
The first big relay in Australia was the 1956 Olympic Torch Relay to Melbourne. The Relay began in Cairns on the ninth of November, when the flame was flown in from Greece, and it caused excitement all down the east coast, arriving right on time in Melbourne, thirteen days later. The torch bearers endured conditions unthinkable today.
The most testing sections of the Relay were in Queensland, the worst of it during a rainy day and night between Mackay and Rockhampton.
The road trip to Cairns to set up the Relay was an epic in itself, beginning in Melbourne nineteen days earlier, the convoy of army trucks and Holdens manned largely by university students who’d never been to Queensland. I was astonished, when reading about it, that when the convoy headed north from Rockhampton, it took the coastal route via Saint Lawrence, following the train line. Now the main highway, back then this route was a dreadful track of creek crossings, potholes, swamps and cattle grids: wild country to the Melbournites in the convoy.
In the end, the convoy had to be loaded on to a train to make the journey to Sarina and rejoin the Bruce Highway.
In the 1956 Relay, the Torch was carried all the way on foot, continuously, regardless of weather or time of day or night. To qualify, the torch bearers had to be able to run a mile in under seven minutes. Men only. Runners were dropped off at marker pegs a mile apart, to wait, unlit torch in hand, for the previous runner to arrive. When they’d run their section they would pass the torch in to the support truck and be tossed a commemorative medal before the truck disappeared on its way.
From Mackay to Rockhampton, the Relay followed the Bruce Highway, much of it gravel road back then, and wisely avoided the Saint Lawrence road. Bringing the torch through was not easy, all the same. It was dark and raining. Each young runner in his white uniform would wait by his marker for the previous runner to emerge from the gloom, torch in hand, to pass on the flame.
The torch weighed one point eight kilograms, and it felt very heavy after a mile held at arm’s length. If the runners held it too close to their bodies, sparks blew in their faces.
People came out with hot soup for the runners down that dark, muddy road and cheered them on. Souvenir hunters followed after the support trucks, pulling up the markers, although this was banned. There must still be relay markers in sheds and cupboards all down the coast. Family members clearing out Dad’s or Granddad’s bits and pieces may puzzle over what they could be.
For the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the Torch Relay was transported by camel, Flying Doctor plane, and underwater on the Great Barrier Reef. It was a far slicker operation than that journey down through Queensland in 1956. Rutted, muddy roads, encounters with snakes and dogs, rainy nights, leeches, mosquitoes: those Melbourne University students went home with enough stories of the wild north to create legends in the south.
This year’s Commonwealth Games Baton Relay is much easier for its Baton bearers. It is a masterpiece of smooth organization, and it has brought pleasure and excitement to people across the world on its journey to Queensland and the Gold Coast. Not so much adventure, though!
Photo “1956 Melbourne Olympic Torch carried through a street in Bowen Qld” – from Picture Queensland, State Library of Queensland: digital image collection