I could say that it was all my running’s fault, but that wouldn’t be quite right. That would be like blaming a sleeping dog for your tripping and falling in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom. No, this one was on me.
It was years ago, not long after I’d gotten passionate about running marathons. I had begun to think of myself not just as someone who runs, but as a runner, the difference being that this wasn’t just something that I did; it was who I was.
As a Runner, I was now part of a community. As I began to associate more and more with this new identity, I began to collect the usual accessories and paraphernalia. Branded race shirts, caps, jackets, and bumper stickers, and gear that I probably didn’t really need.
And then I read about the Olympic torch relay. It resonated with me, connecting me with a tradition stretching back to Native American runners and even further, back to Phidipedes himself. Reading about the history of the torch relay was like reading about my own family tree. It was somehow connected to my own running, just as every river is connected to the Nile.
Given our Age of Technology, it perhaps isn’t hard to predict what came next. I did a word search of “Olympic torch” on my computer and found, much to my shock, that there were actual torches for sale. Real relay torches that passed the precious flame over mountains and plains to its final destination at an Olympic cauldron.
I had to have one. I bought a torch from the 1996 Atlanta games on an online auction, and I was pleased. Then I bought a torch from the 1972 Munich Games, followed by a torch from the 2000 Sydney Games. They were beautiful.
And then I saw it: an auction for a torch from the first modern Olympic relay, at the 1936 Berlin Games. It was being offered for sale by one of America’s finest runners, eight-time national cross-country champion, one-time 10K world record holder, and two-time Olympian Pat Porter. This was a torch from the Games where Jesse Owens collected gold under the gaze of Adolph Hitler, being sold by an honest-to-goodness Olympian. I bid on it, and soon I owned it. I put it on a shelf, as a shrine to my running passion.
Years passed, and my priorities shifted. My need for tangible proof of my running tribe membership took a back seat to a mortgage and saving money for my young son’s college tuition. And while my wife never voiced her thoughts about all the Stuff I’d collected over the years, I felt an unmistakable question lingering unspoken in the air: what on Earth were you thinking?
Maybe it was a creeping maturity, or perhaps it was recognition that our house had slowly become a graveyard for my clutter, but I recently decided to unload the whole lot of torches. I put them up for auction. They went in the order in which they had come, with my Atlanta torch going first, followed by the Munich and the Sydney torches. Then it was time for the Berlin torch.
This was the big one. It had cost me several good paychecks, and was now worth even more. Or so I thought. What began with an innocent question from a potential buyer slowly became a cancerous curiosity. My torch might not be authentic. It turns out that copies of the 1936 torch were produced in 1972 in honor of the Munich Games. The “tell” was that the real torch’s base curved gently at its base down to its bottom edge. The copy had a foot at the bottom.
My torch had that tell-tale foot. It was a copy. My prized icon was in fact not an authentic relic of the 1936 Games. It had never been anywhere near Hitler or Jesse Owens. I’d been had.
I would contact Pat Porter and ask him about this if I could, but that’s not possible. On July 26, 2012, Porter died when a plane he was piloting crashed outside an airport in Sedona, Arizona, taking not only his life but also that of his 15-year old son and his son’s friend.
I like to think that Porter believed that this torch was the real deal when he sold it to me, but it doesn’t really matter. Thinking about his tragic end made my torch problem seem petty. Who cares if it was real or not? There’s a question that my wife and I often ask our son when he is upset over something: is this a big deal or a little deal? There is real tragedy, and there is just bad news. What I had here was just bad news, nothing more.
There’s also a lesson to be learned here. My wife’s unspoken question had been a good one: why did I need to collect this stuff? I can see now that I was wrong to try to commemorate my running with things. Running is in the doing; the running community is created in each run, not by shirts, 26.2-stickers, or Olympic torches. Even my race medals, each one earned honestly over more than two decades of running, don’t really matter much, any more than a photo of my family at Thanksgiving is more important than our actual family gatherings. We are runners not because of what we own, but because of what we do.
So if you are interested in owning a copy of the relay torch from the 1936 Berlin Games, let me know. It’s an authentic reproduction, which gives it value in an Orwellian doublespeak kind of way. Otherwise, it goes back in my closet with my other Stuff. Meanwhile, I’ll be out running.