CAFOD’s barefoot torchbearer, John McBride, has written about his experience carrying the Olympic Flame, his reaction to the planned auction of torches carried by celebrities, and why he hopes the gift of his torch to the St John’s Sports Society in Korogocho will inspire young people there to show us what the Olympics really means.
On June 20th, at Barnard Castle in Newcastle, I ran a leg with the Olympic flame.
For a while, I wondered whether – instead of cheering crowds lining the route – I’d be greeted with jeers and rotten tomatoes.
Many people feel the Olympic Torch Relay has been hijacked by the big corporations.
Whether it’s Jedward, will.i.am or the sons of steel magnates, they feel the right to carry the Torch is being traded for sponsorship or hired out to celebrities.
And now we know why, as the torches carried by celebrities are put up for auction, making the organisers no better in my mind than the runners who’ve sold their Torches for thousands of pounds on e-bay.
I was worried it might all just feel a bit grubby and depressing by the time the torch made it to Barnard Castle.
But I remembered the reasons I’d been nominated by the Catholic aid charity CAFOD, and the reason I felt such pride to be chosen.
I believe in the ideals and values that the Olympic Games represents.
The idea of all humankind coming together in unity and peace; athletes striving to do their very best on the greatest stage of their lives; the whole world rejoicing in the supreme achievement of some, and the incredible effort of others.
And most of all, the knowledge that – from the council estates of Newcastle to the slums of Nairobi – small children with nothing more than talent will be inspired by what they see on the television to go out and chase their own dreams.
For the last four years, when I’ve taken part in the Great North Run to raise money for CAFOD, I’ve run the last mile barefoot.
I do that because, when I went to Kenya to see CAFOD’s work in action, I saw so many children playing in the streets without shoes. That small act of removing my trainers always reminds me of the reason I’m running.
On that trip to Kenya, I met a young kid called Abdi.
He was born in a slum called Korogocho on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Almost 200,000 people live there – a bigger population than Sunderland – but packed into less than a square mile of space.
Among the tin shacks and mud, there are a few schools and health centres, but very little else. Even for those kids who make it through secondary school, unemployment is the norm, and many fall into drugs, crime and violence.
Next to the City Dump is the St John’s Sports Society.
This is one of the few places where young people in Korogocho can escape their everyday lives, and thanks to support from CAFOD, it is free for children under the age of 16.
Boys like Abdi play football, basketball, boxing and karate. They have fun, but they also learn confidence, team work and discipline.
It also promotes peace and community amongst the young people, many from rival ethnic groups.
Father John Weebotsa, the Catholic priest who runs the society, told me: “My dream is that this place becomes a peace haven, and for sport to create change in Korogocho. The slum reality is not the real one. We can show these young people a better life, and build it together.”
When I met Abdi, he had been doing karate at St John’s for five years. His ambition was to make the national squad.
When CAFOD brought him to visit us in Newcastle last Easter – his first trip on a plane – he’d already achieved that ambition, and now wanted more.
He said: “I want to represent Kenya at an Olympic Games. That is my dream. To be a champion for Korogocho and my country. To show that young people where I come from can do something special.”
Tell Abdi that the Olympics has become too commercial, too expensive, too wrapped up in celebrities, sponsors and advertising, and he’d say:
“That’s not what it means to me. For me, it is still what it has been for thousands of years: the chance to represent your people, and compete against the best. That is my dream.”
I was thinking of Abdi and all the other young people of Korogocho when I got to Barnard Castle, and started to take my trainers off.
Of course the Torch Relay organisers asked what I was doing and told me I couldn’t run barefoot. Sure, they can flog the torches carried by celebrities for thousands of pounds and that’s fine. But the idea that an ordinary bloke like me might take his shoes off out of solidarity with young Kenyans was strictly against the rules.
I refused to put my trainers back on and defied them to remove me from the Relay. They let me run. I wore the official tracksuit I’d been given, but my bare feet showed who I was really running for.
The pride I felt when I did that is a pride that no amount of corporate sponsorship or money-grubbing auctions can ever buy. And now my run is over, I know where my Torch is going, and it won’t be onto e-bay.
I’m going back with CAFOD to Korogocho, and I’ve agreed with Father John that I will hand over that ancient symbol of peace and unity to stand in his modern-day haven.
It will stand there as a reminder to all those young people that – just like Abdi – their dream of competing in the Olympics is not a distant fairy-tale, but something they can reach out and touch with their own hands.
And long after the corporate sponsors and celebrity auctions for London 2012 are forgotten, that Torch will continue to inspire Abdi and the other young people of Korogocho to show us what the Olympics really means.