Juneau Mayor Sally Smith said it was a nice summer day more than a year ago when two people walked into her office and asked if they could make a presentation about the Olympic Torch Relay.
Smith said she called City Manager Dave Palmer into her office, and the two members of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee spent about four hours describing the Olympic Torch Relay and how cities can host a visit by the Olympic flame. Then the two committee members, who already had looked around the town for a day before visiting Smith, asked if Juneau would like to be the first Alaska city to host a visit by the Olympic Torch Relay. Smith said it took her and Palmer all of about 15 minutes to confirm Juneau's interest.
"I think this really means a lot to Juneau," Smith said of the Olympic Torch Relay's scheduled visit to Juneau on Thursday, Jan. 24. "This is a unifying force for the state, especially with the Legislature here and in session. This is an Alaskan event, not just a Juneau event. We were really excited when they asked us, and it's appropriate for the state capital to host the relay."
The Olympic Torch Relay will cover 10 miles in Juneau, leaving the Juneau Airport at 8:30 a.m. and arriving at Centennial Hall about 11 a.m. for a city-wide celebration. The relay's route will feature three segments - in the Mendenhall Valley, Lemon Creek and downtown Juneau - with brief drives linking the segments.
The Olympic flame will be carried by 45-50 torchbearers who come from all over the state, from Juneau to Unalaska, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kodiak and Petersburg. In addition, there will be 16 support runners who will run along with the torchbearers and will give assistance where needed.
"The arrival of the torch in Juneau is cause for celebration," Gov. Tony Knowles said, "and I urge all Alaskans to embrace the state goal of the Olympic movement - to build a peaceful and better world by educating young people through sport, without discrimination, in the spirit of friendship, solidarity, fair play and mutual understanding.
"Just as Alaskans can be proud of the strong contingent of athletes we are sending to the Winter Games, we can also be proud of the Alaskans selected to carry the torch in Juneau," Knowles added. "Each has a story, many are heroes, and none will forget this special day of their lives."
The torch's visit to Juneau will include one specialty leg. The torch will be carried across the Juneau Harbor by a Tlingit canoe paddled by six to eight paddlers from Goldbelt Corp. in full regalia, with torchbearer Ethel Lund of Juneau carrying the flame.
"When they asked us to host the relay, they said, 'We'd really like you to take the torch in a dog sled,'" Smith said. "But we had to persuade them to change it to a canoe. The canoe is really more colorful and more cross-cultural, and the torch should unify regardless of the culture."
"We had to tell them dog sledding is more from up north, while in Southeast the canoe has more historical significance," said Kim Kiefer, the director of the Juneau Department of Parks and Recreation and a member of the local task force.
The Olympic Torch Relay began on Dec. 4 in Atlanta, when Muhammad Ali lit the first torch off Atlanta's Olympic cauldron and started the relay on its way. The torch relay will cover 13,500 miles and will visit 46 states before the flame finally arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Feb. 8 for the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The only states the relay will not visit are Hawaii, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The torch will visit more than 90 cities along its 65-day journey, as many as three cities on some days. In between the cities, the flame will be transferred to cauldrons either in the back of a special Chevrolet truck or on a special Union Pacific railcar for the trip to the next city. On four occasions, the flame will be placed in a safety lantern for flights on a special Delta Airlines charter jet.
The trip to Juneau is the last of the four air legs of the torch relay. As soon as the flame completes its visit in Seattle on Wednesday night, Jan. 23, it will be put on board a plane for Juneau. If the weather cooperates, the plane should be in Juneau about 2 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, in plenty of time for the scheduled 8:30 a.m. start of the Juneau segment of the relay. Smith said the plane will have extra fuel on board, in case it needs to circle for a while to allow the weather to clear for landing.
The flame will be carried to Juneau by Delta Connection/SkyWest, which will use a Canadair Regional Jet for the trip north. Besides the Olympic flame, the charter flight also will carry Salt Lake Organizing Committee officials, SkyWest personnel and media members, SkyWest spokeswoman Sabrena Suite said. As soon as the Juneau relay segment is done, the Olympic flame will be put back on board the plane for a trip to Spokane, Wash., where the relay will continue later the night of Jan. 24.
The Olympic Torch Relay's visit to Juneau was announced in March 2001. A local task force of about 20-25 people, co-chaired by Smith and Tish Griffin, the director of student activities at the University of Alaska Southeast, has been meeting for nearly a year to plan Juneau's part of the relay. In addition to planning the torch's visit to Juneau, the local task force screened the nominations for Alaska torchbearers.
"The best way to participate is to cheer on the torchbearers," Kiefer said. "Schools will be busing students and there will be music groups along the route. We've had a number of Alaskans participate in the Olympics, and this is a way for those of us who aren't Olympic athletes to have a chance to participate."
Several local businesses have special plans for the Olympic Torch Relay's visit to Juneau.
The relay's two main national sponsors are Chevrolet and Coca-Cola, and both companies' local representatives - Capital Chevrolet and Odom Corp. - have been helping put up displays around town to get local residents involved in the relay. Chevy will supply vehicles for the relay and its support crew, while Coke will be giving away special Olympic bottles of Coca-Cola and pennants commemorating the relay.
But other local businesses also are getting into the act. Nugget Mall will host an Olympic Torch Relay kick-off day on Saturday, while Eaglecrest Ski Area will host a special torchlight parade at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday. In addition, Alaskan Brewing has created a special full-bodied barley beer called O'Lympian that will be sold in local bars starting on Tuesday, and Heritage Coffee has created a special blend called Torch Brew that will be in stores starting on Monday.
Several other businesses provided discounted hotel rooms, car rental fees and airline tickets for the torchbearers, who had to pay their own way to Juneau if they didn't live in town. Several local residents also have offered to house out-of-town torchbearers, Kiefer said.
"This is our way to be a part of the Olympics," Kiefer said. "It's a wonderful way to get involved with the Olympics, and it's a way to open Juneau to the rest of Alaska."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.