Community and charity: the alternative torch relays springing up across the UK

While LOCOG argues that sponsors are needed to support the Olympic torch relay, and councils struggle to meet the costs of hosting it, there’s a genuine Olympic spirit quietly at work in a series of grassroots alternatives across the country.

From Devon to Moray, alternative relays are involving local communities and raising money for good causes.

Foremost among these is The Real Relay, which sees runners following the official Olympic torch across the British Isles while avoiding the torch’s stops and shortcuts. Organiser Kate Treleaven says they set the relay up in just 5 days:

“We came up with the idea of the Real Relay on Wednesday 23 May, 3 days after seeing the official torch pass through our Devon village. We put the website online on Friday 25 May and we waved our first runner off from Land’s End at midnight on Mon 28 May. We don’t want to knock the official torch relay in any way but we do feel that we’ve proved that LOCOG could and should have organised a continuous running relay for the torch. They had 8 years and seemingly bottomless resources to organise it!”

In Bridlington in Yorkshire, locals were so frustrated by a torchbearer place being given to a Saudi Arabian entrepreneur that they organised their own alternative, with a torch being carried by a disabled long jump star, an athlete, and two members of the town’s fencing club, including still-competing 78-year-old Joy Fleetham.

The relay was then called off after the local council said it could not support it.

Locals in the Forest of Dean held their own relay when the official version missed the area out, in Wimbledon the local newspaper is helping to organise an alternative event after locals were “snubbed”, and in Westerham the local paper launched a “Flaming Cheek” campaign, including plans to hold an alternative relay too.

In Moray in North East Scotland local group Walk, Jog, Run Moray ran its own relay with a target to involve 2012 local people, including the oldest and youngest resident:

And in Hawick Hamish Smith made his own torch for the community to use:

Running through all the alternative torch relays is a focus on community and charity. In Bridlington plans were made to collect money for the local RSPCA and the Katie Walker Trust, while The Real Relay has already raised almost £6,000 for charity.

In contrast, guidelines to local authorities from the Olympic organisers specify that the official torch relay cannot be used to raise money for charity.

And while councils have had to spend tens of thousands hosting the official relay – which some companies have paid tens of millions to the Olympic organisers to sponsor – the organisers of these alternative events have had to keep costs low.

“Do we need big sponsors to organise a national torch relay? A resounding NO!” explains The Real Relay’s Kate Treleaven. “We certainly haven’t sought sponsorship, and in fact we feel that it’s the simplicity of the Real Relay that is much of the attraction. I can’t help feeling that the organisation would have been a lot more complicated if we’d have got sponsors involved. It was certainly something that we knew we didn’t want right from the start.”

As for the costs of the relay, the organisers have relied on goodwill and good organisation:

“We had to pay £180 to put the baton in cargo on its first flight from Liverpool to Isle of Man, but since then all the journeys it’s had to make by air and sea have been free as the air and ferry companies have taken the baton as crew hand luggage.

“We have a couple more journeys to make out to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, and we’re hoping that we will be able to arrange for the baton to travel for free there too.

“Logistically, it’s taken us a lot of time breaking the Olympic Torch route down into stages of about 10-12 miles. The actual route between the communities is up to the runner but we strongly recommend that they avoid major roads.

“There have been areas where it has been more of a struggle to find runners than others. In all honesty we have come quite close to the wire on occasions. i.e. phoning round running clubs trying to get someone to run a stage in 6 hours time!  But, as momentum grows and word of the Real Relay grows we’re now finding that we have more than enough eager runners wanting to get involved.”