Festival Torch Lighted Ceremony Starts Trek to St. Louis

Article excerpt

The torch is lit and the relay is under way.

The 1994 U.S. Olympic Festival got off to an emotional start Saturday morning, 14,100 feet above sea level, with a mountainous view that inspired the lyrics to "God Bless America."

Olympic medalists Ray Armstead of St. Louis and Nikki Ziegelmeyer of Imperial lit the Festival torch in a ceremony atop Pike's Peak.

The Festival rite mirrors the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony every four years on Mount Olympus.

Members of the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs joined a 200-person contingent of Festival staffers, politicians and corporate patrons at the Olympic Monument atop Pike's Peak.

"Take the torch and run with it, St. Louis," said USOC director of national events Sheila Walker.

The Pike's Peak Running Club got first crack at it, relaying the flame down the mountain on a 20-mile jaunt to the U.S. Olympic Training Center across town in Colorado Springs.

After another brief ceremony, the flame was transferred to two safety lanterns - one is a backup - and flown to Kansas City.

From there on Wednesday, volunteer runners will start to carry the torch across Missouri and Southern Illinois. The finish line will be at the Arch at 8 p.m. July 1, during the Festival's opening ceremony.

During the Festival, nearly 4,000 U.S. athletes will compete in 37 events at 25 sites, or venues.

St. Louis already has set a Festival record with more than $2 million in advance ticket sales.

After the torch was lit, Festival officials and backers were even giddier. And not just because of the normal lightheadedness from oxygen debt at high altitude.

"That felt good, lighting that torch," said Armstead, a gold medalist in the 1,600-meter relay in 1984 and a director of the Torch Relay. "That made my heart beat faster."

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said East St. Louis Mayor Gordon Bush, who got a hand on the torch before it made its descent from the monument. "I feel that this Festival, from what I saw up here, is going to be the best ever."

And St. Charles County Executive Gene Schwendemann said: "I'm glad I could be a part of it. It's impressive. The Festival is going to be interesting all the way through."

St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, gung-ho Festival backers, were no-shows because of other commitments.

Bosley was the subject of a perceived snub by the former Festival leadership in St. Louis, which bypassed him on the stage in San Antonio when the torch was transferred to end the 1993 Festival there.

Under the new Festival leadership of chairman Duane Christensen and executive director Mike Dyer, this torch lighting created no sparks.

"The closer you get to the Festival, the more you're drawn into it," said Christensen. …