Mike Rowbottom: Why, for once, David Beckham was not the most important passenger on the plane
Friday, 18 May 2012
The last container of the Flame, which is traditionally split for the purposes of prudence and practicality, had been carried aboard from through the rain which had been drumming down upon the troubled land of Greece for two days. The bearer was the Princess Royal, described yesterday by Sport and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson as "one of the unsung heroes" of British sport in general, and the London 2012 Games in particular.
The Royal progress up the steps to the yellow and orange liveried "Fire Fly" – or, as the Mayor of London called it at the previous night's post-ceremonial bash at the British Embassy, the "custard coloured comet" – was witnessed by a BBC news crew perched on a gantry, soaked in the line of duty.
As the Princess Royal took her place across the aisle from the precious cargo, the other VIPS, including Robertson, Boris Johnson, Sebastian Coe and that very antithesis of the unsung hero, David Beckham – plain David, not Sir, as the man on the tannoy had announced a little before time during the Handover ceremony – packed their hand baggage into the overhead lockers, for all the world like ordinary mortals.
"Unless you happen to be an Olympic flame I'm afraid there's no smoking on this flight," japed the Captain as the plane prepared for the first of its destinations – RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, whence the Torch would start on its 70-day journey towards the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, passing, according to the official information, within 10 miles of 95 per cent of the UK population.
It had been the Princess Royal sitting amidst her own and the Flame's dedicated Metropolitan Police guards clad in pale grey, Olympic branded tracksuits, who had received the Torch from the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee in the marble marvel of the Panathenaic Stadium.
But it was the lean, tanned, smiling, super-coiffed figure sitting three rows behind her who would be involved in the significant Torch action at the other end – the man whom the British Ambassador had described ruefully the previous evening as "still more popular than anyone else in the country".
The very mention of Beckham's name had perked up the bedraggled Athenians who had attended the previous evening's ceremony, raising cheers that rose above the polite level accorded to all the other VIPs announced. It was nice to know the Greeks have forgiven him for that England free kick just over a decade ago.
His presence at the Embassy – silent, smiling – had set the marquee in which the VIP speeches had been made into a surging ferment. His exit was slowed by a mass of suited and booted attendees whose inhibitions about pushing, elbowing and taking lots of pictures on their mobile phones diminished in proportion to the patient superstar's distance from them.
A little later in the evening, one male guest maintained loudly to a group of others: "He was lovely with the kids, too..." There could surely have been only one person to whom that remark applied.
Earlier in the day, Beckham had visited children at the Experimental University School of Athens, which sounded like an artistic movement but was in fact a compact and relatively long-established educational establishment near the centre of the city.
Before his arrival, the media stood around in a courtyard playground surrounded by flats, cramped but sheltered from teeming rain under awnings and umbrellas. Children in red, yellow, blue and green shirts, all wearing white caps bearing the logo Olympic Truce, stood ready for football action with their famous guest. Inside the main school building, a group of young girls in dancing outfits awaited their own moment to shine.
After a while, the children started bouncing up and down on the spot, having given up any hope of remaining dry. Rain began to pool in the untenanted goal at the edge of the courtyard playground – and it was announced that all football and dancing was cancelled. What a shame.
A poster in one of the classrooms read: "Your friend from London, UK is coming to visit you in Greece. Make suggestions about things to do in Athens."
Sadly, their recently arrived friend, wearing an orange red t-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and the requisite adidas trainers had only one thing left to do once he had had a brief chat with them in their classroom, and that was to say goodbye and leave. But at least he could claim there was important work he needed to do.
He had confessed to the media during the trip that he was a little concerned about his forthcoming task of lighting the cauldron at the British end with the Torch. "I hope it doesn't go out," he said with an uneasy smile.
In the departure lounge at Athens airport, as the crew posed for a serious of increasingly athletic posed pictures with the golden Olympic Torch – empty, of course, at this point – one of the designers of those Torches, Gary Lansdowne of Tecosim, had explained how the special method by which the propane tank operated meant that would not happen.
"Once it's lit, you can wave it around like a Jedi sword and it won't go out," he said. "I've tried it."
On arrival at the location of RNAS Culdrose, the destination, the plane circled for a while to ensure perfect synchronisation with the plan – fitting for a Games that always seems to have had time to spare.
Now we were taxi-ing in. A small, very British crowd – excited young faces, waving hands, flags, a marquee, a brass band. The Princess and VIPs at the front made themselves ready for an exit that was going live to the nation via BBC. Beckham stood, gaunt under the tan, looking like a player in a tunnel.
Then the Princess Royal was out, with Nick Clegg waiting to greet her, and the noise – enthusiastic rather than overwhelming – rose. The Princess Royal stepped gingerly towards the waiting plinth and cauldron, bearing the lantern in her left hand like Florence Nightingale.
The flame looked perilously small. But none of Beckham's fears were realised as he first lit the torch, then the cauldron, before holding the lit torch up for general view. No upsets. Another moment for him to shine. A new moment for others...
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.