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Managing the Olympic Torch Relay: 34 Productions in 34 Nights

UC alumnus Bill Kavanagh was production manager for the first global Olympic torch relay, supervising ceremonies in 27 different countries, one every night for 34 nights.

Date: 8/23/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Deb Rieselman
Phone: (513) 556-5225
Photos By: provided by Bill Kavanagh
UC ingot Premiering a new stage production every night for more than a month by managing 34 different production crews, who spoke 19 different languages, was an Olympic feat of its own. And any gold medal would certainly go to University of Cincinnati alumnus Bill Kavanagh, production manager of the first global Olympic Torch Relay of 2004

Ultimately, Kavanagh, of Los Angeles, was responsible for the ceremonies held each night as the torch worked its way around the world in June and July. The ’78 graduate of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning had served in the same capacity two years ago for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, but that tour stayed in the host country — as has each tour since the relay began in 1936.

Kavanagh on a camel

The global tour covered 51,000 miles and crisscrossed 37 time zones in traveling to 27 countries. “We skipped around the world to hit certain cities in certain time periods,” Kavanagh explained. “We were in London, for instance, in time for Wimbledon.” 

With the theme “Pass the Flame, Unite the World,” 3,000 torchbearers helped carry the flame from Olympia, Greece, where the sun’s rays initially ignited it, to all 22 cities that had previously hosted the Summer Olympics and to all the continents. Each evening, local citizens planned their own ceremonies for the arrival of the torch — all overseen and coordinated by Kavanagh. After the torch completed its global trek, the relay continued within Greece for another 28 days with only Greek supervision.

The size of the crowd and ceremonies varied from city to city, but enthusiasm ran particularly high in Africa and South America, where the torch made its inaugural visit. “The production in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) was phenomenal,” Kavanagh said. “That morning, we had a military welcome with four jets escorting us into the country. They were so close, we could see the pilots waving.

“At sunset, 250,000 people were gathered on the beach, where they had erected a runway, two football fields in length, 15 feet over the heads of the people for the final torchbearer to run across. Then they released doves as he came.”

Other memorable events included Rod Stewart and Ozzy Osbourne giving concerts in London; Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and Ellen Degeneres running as torchbearers in L.A.; 16,000 costumed children in an unannounced parade in Cape Town (South Africa) and gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci sliding down a cable onto Times Square from a skyscraper. “You couldn’t see the cable; she looked like Tinker Bell flying in,” he said.

“Every day was a pinch yourself day,” he added. “Every city closed the freeways as we went from the airport to the hotel and back, and crowds lined the streets waving. I felt like Madonna … with fire.”

Crowds of spectators averaged about 100,000 people, he says. The larger crowds of up to 350,000 often became impassible, creating a dilemma for runners to reach specific spots at specific times for evening ceremonies. Sometimes the torchbearer was pulled into a van and escorted through the wall of people Kavanagh says. “And in the end, the timing always worked out.”

Besides crowd control, Kavanagh’s biggest obstacle was the language barrier. One of the first things he needed upon reaching a new site everyday was the script for the event. Of course, he could rarely read a word of it, and local interpreters could seldom translate technical production terms that he considered vital.

In Cairo, language problems became personal when two Egyptians whom he couldn’t understand put him on a camel and led him into the desert before he realized they weren’t crew members. His cries for help fell on deaf sand until he paid the men to let him off.
In regard to future torch relays, Kavanagh doubts a global one will be repeated. “It’s just too expensive,” he says. “Our original budget called for 72 cities, but we couldn’t do it, even with sponsors (Coca-Cola and Samsung).

“Still, it was pretty amazing to go through 27 countries without a hitch and exactly on time.”


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