Tom Degun: Olympic Torch Relay puts "green old Essex" in the limelight
Sunday, 08 July 2012
For those who don't know, Essex is a county with a bit of a reputation for... well, let's just say the girls in Essex are often described as a bit "fake". Popular British reality television series The Only Way Is Essex has done little to scotch that reputation; after all, it's not what you would call intellectual viewing.
Indeed, it is a slightly misleading reputation as Essex is really quite a lovely place. Yet still I had my doubts about how much our misunderstood county would get behind London 2012, despite the Olympic Flame being scheduled to travel through it.
But, before the Olympic Flame arrived, my first stop of the week was at Basildon Sporting Village.
It is at this new £38 million ($59 million/€48 million) venue where the Japanese swimming team has arrived to finalise its preparations for London 2012, using the sparkling 50-metre, Olympic-sized pool. It is rather a high-profile coup for Basildon given that Japan finished fourth in the medals table at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, just one place below the British team.
Pleasingly, Japanese swimming star Takuro Fujii, who claimed a bronze medal at the Games, was full of praise for the complex.
"This is an amazing facility, one of the best I have been in," he told me. "It is clean, beautiful and really the perfect place to prepare for the Olympics."
It was quite a compliment for Basildon Sporting Village, and what was also great to see was the amount of local schoolchildren who turned out to watch the world's elite swimmers impressively go through their paces.
However, little did I realise that this would just be a minor prelude to the Olympic Torch Relay, which passed through the heart of Essex yesterday during a 117.3-mile journey.
Despite heavy rain pelting down in the morning, the public turned out in their thousands to see the Olympic Torch carried through the county's streets, with crowds 15-deep lining the roads as it travelled through Southend-on-Sea in front of screaming fans of all ages, patriotically waving their Union Jacks.
A special cheer was reserved for Essex's very own Mark Foster (pictured above), the Olympic swimmer and twice Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who carried the British flag at the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony.
Meanwhile, following the Olympic Flame around Essex in my car was a bigger challenge than I had anticipated. I had expected a small build-up of traffic, but on a weekday I thought it would be nothing significant.
I was wrong. Essex was showing unprecedented interest in seeing the historic Olympic Flame.
Fortunately, I arrived at Hadleigh Farm (pictured above) just in time to see the Olympic Flame make one of its pivotal stops of the day. The picturesque location is Essex's one Olympic venue and will host the mountain bike competition – and, rather fittingly, the rain stopped and the sun came out just as the Flame was paraded around the track.
It was then on to Basildon Sporting Village, where the Japanese athletes were on hand to applaud, before the Flame finally made it to Hylands House in Chelmsford for a special evening celebration in front of a sold-out 15,000 crowd. The day's last Torchbearer, John Bowman (pictured below), lit a celebration cauldron on stage as the Olympic Flame burned brightly into the night in green old Essex.
"We have been a part of history today as we welcomed the Torch into our county," said Essex County Councillor Stephen Castle. "I was delighted to see so many people out in the pouring rain cheering on the Flame, proving to the world the Olympic spirit is alive and well here in Essex."
It was rather sad when the Olympic Flame made its final journey out of Essex with a last farewell along Chelmsford High Street (pictured below).
Sensing the significance of this occasion, and fully aware that the Olympic Flame would not be back in Essex in my lifetime, I crawled out of bed at around 5.30am and took my 11-year-old brother, Luke, along with me.
I had thought this might be a quiet affair with people unwilling to have too early a start on their day off. Again I was wrong as I underestimated the huge passion Essex has for the Games.
Once more thousands lined the streets to wave the Olympic Torch out of Essex and onwards to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, where it will light the Cauldron at the Opening Ceremony on July 27.
What has struck me most this week is how much patriotism and good feeling the Olympic Flame has created. It quite literally lit up my community as I know it has many others around the United Kingdom these last few weeks.
There was always a fear people wouldn't get behind London 2012 but I'm now certain they will.
The focus will obviously now move on to London but the contribution and the support of the whole of the UK cannot be forgotten.
For Essex, we will fortunately have our Olympic moment in the spotlight again shortly when the London 2012 mountain bike event takes place on August 11 to 12.
But, in the world of London 2012, for this past week at least, the only way was Essex!
Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.