It would have boggled the minds of the Romans. So said Boris Johnson, looking up in amazement at the Orbit, Anish Kapoor’s sculpture and observation tower outside London’s new Olympic stadium. Boris’s words of wonderment might just as easily have been directed at the Olympic Torch’s reception in the city of Chester’s racecourse.

The Romans, it seems, were no mugs when it came to grandiose statements of prestige and power; witness the impressive Baths of Caracalla and the towering Trajan’s Column, but they were no slouches either when it came to celebrating important occasions. Remember, the bard’s description of Pompey’s return in ‘Julius Caesar’:

And when you saw his chariot but appear;
Have you not made an universal shout;
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks.

On the evening of 29 May the citizens of Chester gathered in their thousands at the Roodee awaiting the appearance of the Olympic Torch.

The gates opened at 4.00pm and the since the Torch was not due until 6.45pm what to do? Not a problem. The day was fine and picnics were in evidence, a variety of stalls provided additional food and drink. Sponsors Coco Cola, Samsung, Lloyds and Nature Valley were giving away freebies of all kinds and on the Moment to Shine stage a varied entertainment was on offer.

Rebecca Romero, local girl, Olympian and double medallist in separate sports was presented to the crowd, Twist and Pulse performed their dance act ably supported by a street crew team. Welsh band Kids in Glass Houses rocked the crowd with their own brand of beast. A procession of dignitaries were welcomed on the stage and then, after an address from the Lady Mayor the anticipated moment arrived.

Jason Maguire on board last year’s Chester Cup winner Overturn appeared in the distance holding the torch and then the Olympic flame flickered into view. Jason then touched the flame to the waiting cauldron and set it alight. The simmering excitement of a celebratory crowd exploded into what can only be described as a universal shout (without the trembling going on underneath the banks of, in this particular instance, the Dee; for the sun was bright and the air was warm).

Those present seem to have taken little heed of the naysayers who argue variously that: the Olympics are a waste of money; money that could be put to better use; there is corruption in high places; the Olympics are just a big commercial enterprise; the ticketing arrangements are unfair; sportsmen and women don’t compete on a level playing field and so on. While there is more than a smidgeon of truth to the arguments, Chester seemed in no mood to entertain or dally with them during these prologue celebrations.

While the fact that a smattering of celebs, unrelated to sport and with no other obvious reason than they appear on our TV screens, have somehow charmed their way into the ranks of the torchbearers will also irritate some, in general the torch relay has to be considered a success.

If nothing else the relay has recognised the contributions the 8,000 participant torchbearers have made – and continue to make – in their communities; and the inspirational example many have shown in the challenges they have faced and the problems they have overcome in their lives. On its journey around the country the torch relay has quite clearly brought people together in a spirit of community and celebration and it has helped distract the nation from the recessionary gloom of the times.

Chester was the torch’s first port of call in the North West. At the Old Dee Bridge earlier the torch party was met by a detachment of legionaries who led it on a triumphant journey through the city streets, brightly decorated for the occasion with two and a half kilometres of bunting. It passed the Amphitheatre, the Eastgate Clock, the Cathedral and the Town Hall before entering the racecourse.

The Flame Celebration phase of the evening ended with enthusiastic community and school choirs and a community dance group but then proceedings seemed to lose momentum. A flame must have been taken from the cauldron for storage overnight but then the cauldron was peremptorily doused and the stage dismantled at 7.15pm.

A muted form of entertainment was going on somewhere but most seemed unsure from where – music and commentary could be heard but sound isn’t always easy to locate. Once located it was found to be coming from a corner of the racecourse, on the flat, not on a stage and from behind barriers.

Over the next hour and a half many of the crowd drifted away for the bars and restaurants of Chester, or for home. This was a pity, especially as a spectacular dance and firework display was promised for later in the evening. Apart from this unfortunate hiatus the evening will be remembered for all that was good about it.

We can only guess at how the ancient Romans might have responded to a gathering and a reception such as this but what is clear is that Cestrians young and old were engaged, enthralled, excited, entertained and generally mindboggled by the occasion; one I am sure they will not forget in a hurry.

Philip Quinn

The Olympic Torch is in Liverpool today (1 June) – click here for details on the torch in Liverpool

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