ROYAL NAVAL AIR STATION CULDROSE, England (AP) — Even the wind cooperated Friday at this normally blustery naval station, remaining calm as David Beckham lit a celebratory cauldron and signaled the start of the 2012 London Olympics torch relay.
There was a hushed “oooooh” as the former England national team captain and current star for the Los Angeles Galaxy took center stage as the flame arrived in the United Kingdom from Greece on the eve of a 70-day relay. Then, as the fire roared to life in the gold and white cauldron, there was an “ahhhh” of relief. Even the vagaries of British weather wouldn’t interfere this time.
“This is a big acceleration of the heartbeat,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said as he summed up the moment. “This is the final furlong for us.”
The flame is a symbol of peace and unity that harkens back to the origins of the games in ancient Greece. But in 2012, it was Beckham that gave it star power. The 37-year-old star was excited about the chance to welcome the world to his “hood.” He’s from east London, where the main stadium is located.
Beckham been involved in the London Games since the organizing committee launched its successful bid in 2005. His star power — the kind that sends children into shrieks of hysteria and turns diplomats’ wives in Athens into paparazzi — is part of the reason that the International Olympic Committee took notice of the London bid over Paris, the favorite.
While Beckham the celebrity isn’t shirking the attention the Olympic torch brings, Beckham the soccer star really, really wants to take part on the field.
“I’ve never played in an Olympic Games,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to.”
“I’ve always made it clear that I love representing my country,” he added. “I’ve done that quite a few times.”
He’s done that 115 times, to be precise, with the England team. But the Olympics have eluded him. He said that being at the flame handover ceremony Thursday night in Athens reminded him of the ancient ties to the games and that he “got goose bumps just being part of it.”
Beckham has been included in coach Stuart Pearce’s 80-man shortlist that will be whittled down to 18 players in the coming weeks to form Britain’s first Olympic soccer squad since 1960. If chosen, he would be one of the three players over age 23 allowed in each Olympic squad.
Many cameras turned to the photogenic Beckham when the flame arrived at a Royal Navy air station in Cornwall on Friday night. The flame, traveling on the gold-painted British Airways Flight 2012, was carried off by Princess Anne, the head of the British Olympic Committee and herself a former Olympian.
On the plane itself, the flame got seats 1A and 1B. There were actually four little lanterns — just in case — and all were guarded by the Metropolitan Police’s special torch security team.
This was a flight like no other. Every detail was considered. Airline passengers arriving in Britain often have to wait in long lines to clear border checks — but here some border guards flew with the passengers so they could check passports while still on board the plane before entering Britain.
London’s Olympic organizers are hoping that the flame’s arrival can generate excitement about the Games.
The torch will be carried all over the British Isles by 8,000 chosen volunteers, mostly local heroes. Its 8,000-mile (12,875-kilometer) journey will linger on the iconic sites — Big Ben, Stonehenge, the white cliffs of Dover — and speed past less appealing areas. It ends up July 27 at the Olympic Stadium in London.
“There is an emotional connection with this that I’m not sure other torch relays got,” organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe said. “When the torch goes through a town, people are going to recognize a lot of those torchbearers. I know a lot of the local authorities in towns who are making extra precautions for the numbers that are going to be out there.”
Beckham is one of the bookies’ favorites to open the Olympics by lighting the cauldron in London — and he told reporters while visiting an Athens school that he’d love the job. Other favorites include miler Roger Bannister, rower Steve Redgrave, Coe, Queen Elizabeth II or other members of Britain’s royal family.
But no word on that — Coe says the decision hasn’t even been discussed yet. For the moment, Beckham’s just thrilled to be a part of the torch relay.
“Being here today just makes it all that real,” he said in Athens. “Being handed the torch is the start of the games.”