Image: BBC

8,000 Holes 

How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay lost its way

This investigation by the crowdsourcing project Help Me Investigate is also available as an ebook. All proceeds of 8,000 Holes go to the Brittle Bone Society.

Download 8,000 Holes as a free ebook here

Part 1: Where did the torchbearer places go?

Jack Binstead is one of the UK’s most promising young athletes: a wheelchair racer in with a chance of competing in the next Paralympic Games. Born with brittle bone disease he has, says his mother Penny, broken 64 bones in his body over just 15 years.

“At the age of nine he was a very down young boy,” she explains. “He was very overweight — he didn’t know which way to go. But when he went to a taster session for children with special needs, the borough’s Head of Sports saw in Jack that he would be good at wheelchair racing. He recommended that Jack try wheelchair racing at a local track in Kingston called Kingsmeadow.”

Jack took part in a few races — and won a few — and became hooked.

“He wanted to go further. There were other athletes that were able to give Jack confidence to be the person he is. That was really good for him — it gave him self-esteem. Training twice a week helped him lose weight, he started to change and he became more of a confident person.
“Now his role model is David Weir, who will be competing in the Paralympics. They train together on the same track in Richmond Park, with the same trainer three or four times a week, and hopefully he will go on and be like David in 2016.”

When the first campaign opened to nominate people to carry the Olympic torch, Jack was in hospital with a fractured hip and a broken femur. A nurse approached Penny and told her she would like to nominate Jack to carry the torch.

“I said, ‘Oh that would be really good’, and it just spiralled from there. The head of a children’s charity attached to the hospital — Momentum — she wanted to nominate him; the Head of the Brittle Bone Society — which is based in Scotland — nominated him. There is a Lord McAvoy from the society who nominated Jack too.”

In total 20 people nominated Jack to carry the Olympic torch: the maximum number allowed.

It was perhaps no surprise that his nomination made it past the initial stages of a tough selection process: it would be hard to write a more inspirational story. Ranked eighth fastest in wheelchair speeds in the UK, he won a Children of Courage award in 2007 and the mini London marathon three times for the Kingston borough — twice with injuries: once with a broken leg and once with ribs broken.

“We have always brought him up to enjoy life and not to be frightened about what could happen,” says Penny.

“Many children with brittle bone are wrapped up with cotton wool because their parents did not want them to actually feel the pain. But he has done everything that he wanted to do and that has made him the character that he is today.”

In November 2011 his family was informed that he had been ‘pre-selected’ for the Olympic Torch Relay.

A few months later they were told that he was “down to the final few”.

By May the long months of anticipation were at an end. He was not selected.

“Jack said: ‘How come I was not picked?’ and I said, well Jack obviously there are lots of inspirational people in the borough and they were picked and obviously that is fine, it is not a problem.
“But then we found out that only three people who live in the borough were picked. I think there is actually one guy from Dubai who is going to carry it.”

This is the story of how Jack, and tens of thousands of others with inspirational stories, missed out on the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch. Of how organisers LOCOG failed to meet their promises, and how — at almost every stage of the allocation process — torchbearer places were given not to those who met the strict criteria for carrying the torch, but to executives at sponsoring companies and their commercial partners, to staff for sales performance, to politicians and diplomats, journalists and media bosses — while guidelines on nominations went unenforced.

It is the story of how the ‘guy from Dubai’ — an executive director of an Olympic energy supplier — got to carry the torch, along with half of that company’s executive board. Of how two of the biggest names in retail travelled 40 miles to exchange a ‘torch kiss’ while a local hurdler was left out. And of how those that did carry the torch with inspirational stories found the experience of a lifetime “soured” when they realised that those carrying the torch alongside them had no such stories to tell.

A moment to shine — for some

“The search begins today to find 8,000 inspirational people to carry the Olympic Flame on its journey around the UK next year.”

As LOCOG launched the public nomination campaign at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London on May 18 2011 their staff appeared confident about what the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay would represent.

Each of the 8,000 torchbearers would “have a story of personal achievement and/or contribution to their local community,” LOCOG said, while half of torchbearers would be under 25.

And 90% of the 8,000 places would be “made available to the public”.

A campaign to allocate 2,012 of the 8,000 places was launched the same day: ‘Moment to Shine’, LOCOG’s own initiative, was overseen by 12 regional panels who would help judge and award places.

The panels included representatives from local government, sport, culture, education, and the voluntary and youth sectors. Importantly, these would not be told the names of the nominees, meaning that torchbearers would be selected on the strength of their nomination story alone.

Of the remaining 5,988 places — three quarters of the total—1,360 each would be awarded through public campaigns by three companies which had paid millions (a reported $5-15m each at the previous Olympics) for the rights to be ‘Presenting Partners’.

These were the longstanding Olympic sponsors Coca Cola and Samsung, and newcomers Lloyds TSB. No one else could allocate torchbearer places publicly.

In the wake of the launch The Daily Telegraph published a guide to becoming a torchbearer. “There are only 7,200 places openly available to all UK residents,” the article explained, “so competition will be strong”.

In fact, the number ‘openly available’ was much lower. Almost a quarter of the torchbearer places — 1,908 in all — were to be allocated through channels outside of the open campaigns. And even within the public nomination campaigns, things were about to get complicated.

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Part 2: Getting your money’s worth

Once the Presenting Partners were able to start awarding torchbearer places, each handled their allocation differently.

As the only national presenting partner, Lloyds TSB allocated their places through two UK-wide campaigns: one through Lloyds TSB itself, and another through Bank of Scotland. The bank said they would give the opportunity to “people who have made a difference in their community”.

An analysis of the data on both banks’ official torchbearer sites, however, finds almost 500 of their 1,360 places unaccounted for, and when pressed, the bank admitted that:

“Consistent with the other Presenting Partners of the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay, Lloyds Banking Group received 17% of the 8000 Torchbearer places — 1360 in total. 85% were made available to the public and 15% were awarded to Lloyds Banking Group’s employees who were nominated by other Bank employees.”

This meant that a further 204 places were not open to the public, putting the total number of places outside the nomination campaigns at 2,112 — over a quarter of all torchbearers.

Coca Cola: “A host of new ambassadors”

The drinks giant Coca Cola, meanwhile, were expressing their desire to “shine a light on the UK’s young people and celebrate the amazing things they get up to every day — from playing sport, to making music; from helping out in their local communities, to protecting the environment”.

Their campaign focused largely on finding 1,300 ‘Future Flames‘, a “young person who uses their passion in areas such as sport and physical activity, music and dance, and community and the environment, to spread happiness in their local communities.”

Sam Feasey at the agency Brand Rapport wrote that the strategy would provide the drinks giant “with a host of new ambassadors and rich bank of content.” Coca Cola predicted about a third of the British population would have seen the Future Flames by the end of the relay.

Judging panels for these symbols of youth included members of rock groups, DJs — and Olympic swimming hopefuls. The Wanted not only sat on one of the juries judging torchbearer nominations, but participated in some ‘ambush marketing’ of their own,informing three successful nominees in person for a video promotion:

In “recognition” of their contribution, the judges got to carry the torch themselves too, also as ‘Future Flames’ — preventing those places from being open to public nomination. Coca Cola refused to provide details of all 1300 Flames.

The same pattern could be seen in the Live Positively campaign, which allocated 23 places in the US focused on healthy living, community and the environment.

10 of these places went to ‘Exceptional Teens’ — young people selected through a stringent and detailed public nomination process; but three were given to public figures from sport and fitness; and the remaining ten torchbearers came from Coca Cola itself and organisations running programs sponsored by the drinks giant. It was difficult to tell whether Coca Cola’s decision to award torchbearer places to people heading up Coca Cola-funded obesity studies and health campaigns represented ‘public’ nominations open to anyone, or invitations open to a few.

When asked about the figures the company would not provide detailed breakdowns of how places were allocated, but did say the following:

“As Presenting Partner of the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay, Coca-Cola has 1,350 official London 2012 Olympic Torchbearer places with over 90% of our allocation going to members of the public through our Future Flames campaign.
“A small number of our allocation has been given to campaign ambassadors, and our remaining places have been given to our partner organisations such as StreetGames and NUS [both of whom provided the first Future Flame nominees], and to some of our employees to recognise the positive role they play in their communities.”

Samsung: “Everyone’s Olympic Games”

Samsung’s strategy for allocating torchbearer places was the most ambitious of the three presenting partners.

The Korean telecomms giant were disappointed that the torch relay had been scaled back to cross fewer countries after protests disrupted the Beijing Olympics relay. “We prefer international because we can contact more customers and people around the world,” said Sunny Hwang, Samsung’s VP-head of worldwide sports marketing.

But the company made up for this with a staggering number of campaigns across 58 countries. Just 10 torchbearer places, for example, attracted 11,000 nominations through a Facebook campaign in Belgium. A promotional video for the winners showcases their genuinely inspirational stories, but fails to mention that only eight came through the public campaign: the other two came from telecomms company Belgacom.

18 came from another campaign in Poland, nine from Kuwait, and just one through a TV show in Australia. Their two other Australian torchbearers were the the country’s High Commissioner to London and Samsung’s Group Senior Product Manager for Household Appliances.

In the UK members of the public were encouraged to go to a Vodafone store to make their nominations. Samsung teamed up with Metro International to produce “a special glossy, high quality bag wrap which would promote the campaign and drive people to Vodafone stores”. Distribution locations were “handpicked for their close location to Vodafone stores.”

Publicly, the company said they were going to give their places to “ordinary people who are an inspiration to others” and nominations would be reviewed by a judging panel. At the launch event in London the company branded the campaign ‘Everyone’s Olympic Games’ — but it clearly wasn’t for everyone.

A statement about the Gulf Region campaign on Samsung’s website added that the company would also be selecting “well-known regional personalities who have helped better their community through a closed-selection process.”

These included a radio personality from Ghana, an Ethiopean businessman and the MD of a Kenyan supermarket chain.

In Korea, one local news outlet reported that actor and singer Lee Seung-gi “was chosen as he has modeled for the company’s commercials”. Another news outlet in Kenya described their local nominees frankly:

“They were nominated by Samsung Electronics East Africa to represent the country and market this region.”

In Canada, the “Pursue your Passions” campaign to identify seven inspirational Canadians saw more than half going to winners of the Samsung Mobilers competition, “whose members act as social media ambassadors for Samsung”. These inspirational Canadians, it seemed, would have to work for their torches.

As the campaigns multiplied, it became difficult to see how transparent the nomination processes were, or how ‘general’ the public was that they were intended to target. When asked about the allocation of places Samsung would not give details on the specific campaigns and numbers from each, or the criteria for judging them, but said that:

“Samsung has recruited Torchbearers who have ‘gone the extra mile’ from around the world as part of its ambition to make London 2012 Everyone’s Olympic Games. Approximately 90% of Samsung’s Torchbearers were carefully selected from the public through our global Torchbearer recruitment campaign, which searched for people who have contributed to the local communities and have inspired others to achieve their potential.”

But if only “approximately 90%” of Samsung’s torchbearers were selected from the public, this meant that more places were being allocated outside of open processes.

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Part 3: A very specific “general” public

Although news reports at the time said that 90% of all torch relay places would be “available to the general public”, a careful reading of LOCOG’s language and figures suggests that this was not entirely accurate. The chief executive of LOCOG was careful in his words when he said that places “were made available to the public through a number of channels, including the four public nomination campaigns run by Locog, Coke, Lloyds TSB and Samsung.”

With fewer than three quarters of places available through those four public nomination campaigns, the remainder would be allocated through other channels which restricted their availability to the ‘general’ public to varying degrees.

A small number of places were available if you met particular conditions. For example, if you lived under one of the 66 local authorities hosting evening events or “an Island visit requiring extra logistics”, you could nominate someone for one of a further 135 places — leaving over 100 local authorities without places.

There were 212 places for children who would be 12 at the time of the relay and went to schools in the Get Set Network. 83% of schools in London are a member of the network but in Wales only 43% of schools are members, and in Northern Ireland just 31%. A further 30 places — later reduced to 20 — were allocated to people taking part in the International Inspiration programme.

70 places were also divided between Sport England, Sport Northern Ireland,sportscotland and Sport Wales. But these bodies were explicitly told that they were not able to advertise places to the general public. So instead, they used internal channels, such as Sport Northern Ireland’s Activ8 programme.

Even once those places were added to the total, more than 21% of the 8,000 places remained. But when questioned about this, LOCOG insisted that they were “wholly confident” that 90% of torchbearer places did go to the general public.

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Part 4: The 21%

Between December 2011 and June 2012 the numbers of torchbearer places being awarded by bodies other than the Presenting Partners and LOCOG increased by a third.

The International Olympic Committee‘s share of places saw the biggest change, going up by half — from 71 according to a December press release to 117 six months later, while commercial partners other than the three presenting partners — dozens of companies including Dow Chemical, G4S, Atos and BT — saw their share go up from 678 places to 913.

The British Olympic Association (BOA) was explicit in an internal document that its 250 places were not part of the 90% of places available to the general public. Five each went to over 40 national governing bodies (NGB), who were given instructions — underlined and in bold — “We strongly urge you to seek the voice of your athlete population for your nominations.

The criteria for NGB torchbearers was specific: three athletes, one of whom must be a past Olympian, and two volunteers, officials or staff members from the governing body — one of whom must be aged 12-24.

Notably, it also specified that:

“Each Torchbearer, regardless of the nominating organisation, must be nominated by another individual [and that they must satisfy particular criteria including knowing] the importance of fair play”.

Many of the other bodies distributing torchbearer places, however, seemed less stringent in their criteria.

As users of the Help Me Investigate website analysed torchbearer data they noticed a recurring pattern. Time and time again, corporate partners allowed individuals to nominate themselves to carry the torch, with stories that made no mention of the criteria set out by LOCOG, or stories that were not published at all.

LOCOG’s guidance not to select executives was consistently — and publicly — ignored.

At Aggreko, for example, which held a £50m contract to provide temporary energy to the Olympics, four out of seven executive directors were carrying the torch — as well as the Chief Executive’s personal assistant.

One of these directors was Kash Pandya — the ‘guy from Dubai’ running in Jack Binstead’s borough. His nomination story said he ‘contributed to the community’ by supplying developing countries with electricity.

As Regional Director of Aggreko International, that was his job. It was how the company made money.

Within adidas, the family of Managing Director of Western Europe, Gil Steyaert, accounted for three places alone.

Steyaert himself was not listed on the official torch relay website but he did appear in images taken by the BBC on the Stockport leg, along with fellow torchbearer Rob Money, the company’s sports marketing head.

Steyaert’s two daughters carried the torch in Blackpool in Burnley: one nominated herself on the basis that she had raised money for her private school hockey team to play in Australia, but neither mentioned their family connection to the company.

Other torchbearers carrying on behalf of adidas were nominated by their managers, with stories about their sales performance or “money in the till attitude” — but nothing about contributing to the community.

Many of the company’s torch places were allocated to senior executives at corporations adidas had business relationships with. Eight nominees were given an identical nomination story.

One pair of executive torchbearers even got to enjoy their own corporate ‘Kodak moment’, as the general manager of Intersport UK and the Group Product Director for Next exchanged a ‘torch kiss‘ in Stafford.

Christos Angelides and Tom Foley were both chief executives at companies with a business relationship with adidas. No one was supposed to be allowed to pick their spot on the torch relay, so it was an 8,000-to-1 chance that they would carry on consecutive legs

It was an 8,000-to-one shot that the two adidas nominees — both of whom lived over 40 miles south of the town — should carry the torch on consecutive legs of the relay: in official guidance LOCOG insisted that torchbearers could not choose where they carried the torch.

Coincidentally, a 17 year old local hurdler nominated by UK Athletics was due to carry the torch on the same day — but had been dropped two weeks previously for ‘failing background checks’. His mother — already devastated by the decision to withdraw his place — was incensed by the revelation.

“James has done nothing wrong and there is no reason that we know of for him to be dropped. He has no criminal record and has not been in trouble. The only explanation we can think of is that he has been taken out because of [the inclusion of adidas nominees]. It’s not about what you do and what you know but about who you know. It’s put a dampener on everything.”

The organisers of the torch relay told the Daily Mail that “all sponsors’ places were fixed in March and would have no connection with an individual failing background checks.”

Similar stories came from ArcelorMittal, where the chief executive Lakshmi Mittal — the richest man in Britain — carried the torch with a nomination story comparing himself to an Olympian. His son, the head of mergers and acquisitions, carried it with a nomination story about overseeing a corporate takeover.

In addition to the 913 places for corporate partners hundreds more places were given to the three presenting partners for “direct invitations to high profile Torchbearers.”

These included celebrities such as Will.i.am and Jamie Oliver (Samsung) and sportspeople such as swimmer Mark Foster (Lloyds TSB) and Didier Drogba (Samsung). But outside of the spotlight, torchbearer places were being given once again to executives, commercial partner bosses, and sponsorship campaign team members.

Places went to the MD for Samsung Mobile UK and Ireland; the Chief Operations Officer at Samsung Africa; the President and CEO for Samsung Canada; the President and CEO for Samsung in Southeast Asia, and many others. Their names — like those of so many executive torchbearers — later disappeared from the London 2012 site.

At Coca Cola places went to Vonta Vontobel, the president of the Brazilian Bottlers Association of Coca-Cola, and Xiemar Lopez, the director of Coca Cola Brazil.

The company explained that:

“A small number of our allocation has been given to some of our employees through a nomination campaign, and to our campaign ambassadors who have helped to find our Future Flames. Our remaining places have been given to our partner organisations and their affiliates.”

Alongside the executives were a cluster of PR, marketing and communications staff — the very people overseeing the sponsorship campaigns. EDF selected the group’s former director of HR and communications. BT selected a senior marketing manager, and BP selected Carl Halksworth, the creative director of Landor, their design agency partner for the Games. The people who had designed a range of pin badges for Coca Cola’s London 2012 campaign and the Coca Cola pavilion at the Games were also included. Three people from the Olympic Broadcasting Service and an account manager atVodafone were among those identified by the Bournemouth Echo; the creator of a film used by the London 2012 team when bidding for the games was identified by the Argus in Sussex.

At Lloyds TSB sponsorship manager Camilla Grove would carry the torch. And Samsung nominated PR worker Jeoungeun Ahn for “writting [sic] stories about volunteer works of her colleagues.” It’s not clear if her colleagues were nominated themselves.

A spokesperson for Lloyds TSB explained:

“People were asked to tell us, in less than 150 words, about the difference the person they nominated made to their community and how they inspired others. All nominations were reviewed, a shortlist created and Torchbearers were selected at random from that shortlist before being submitted to LOCOG for approval. With over 100,000 employees these outstanding people make up 0.2% of our staff base”.

As the places were passed on, the links to the original torchbearer criteria seemed to grow fainter. The deputy editor of a Russian newspaper accepted a nomination from Coca Cola; the owner of a chain of shops in Ukraine from Samsung.

In Bridlington in Yorkshire, locals were so frustrated by a Saudi Arabian businessman carrying the torch that they organised their own alternative, with a torch being carried by locals whose nominations had been rejected: a disabled long jump star, an athlete, and two members of the town’s fencing club, including still-competing 78-year-old Joy Fleetham.

But the relay was called off when the local council said it could not support it.

In Merton the Wimbledon Guardian organised its own alternative relay when it emerged that not one person running in the local leg of the official Olympic Torch Relay was from the borough. Their torchbearers included “two former Olympic champions, a 2016 Olympic hopeful and an 86-year old marathon runner who has raised thousands of pounds for charity.”

The biggest alternative relay of all — the Real Relay — had raised over £11,000 for charity by mid-July. In contrast the official Olympic Torch Relay actively discouraged fundraising: one torchbearer was banned from wearing a ‘Help for Heroes’ charity wristband and agreements signed by local authorities hosting the relay forbade them from using the relay to raise money for charity.

Jack Binstead’s mother, meanwhile, was trying to raise funds of her own.

“It has been quite trying up until now. We have had to rely on sponsoring him ourselves: running races, trying to raise money, because it is a very expensive sport. His chair alone is £3,500.
“We are lucky enough at the moment that local charities have helped us out with equipment, but if you are heading towards something like the Commonwealth Games you are going to have to attend all the races that help you build up points. You have to build up enough points to get yourself recognised to go through to the GB Team so you have to go to races all over England, you need to go to international races in Germany and Switzerland and then eventually you become part of the junior squad that then goes to New Zealand and Canada. That is what Jack is going to have to look into doing and we are going to have to look into funding for him.”

Tarred with the same brush

As more and more stories emerged of powerful individuals carrying the torch with less than inspiring nominations, the Times Higher Education Supplement reported on a cluster of university vice chancellors “getting in on the act”.

Samsung had given three places each to 31 universities with the instructions that one place go to a senior member of staff.

At Nottingham Trent, Manchester Metropolitanand Leeds Metropolitan universities, vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors obliged and carried the torches.

At Brunel, notably, the vice chancellor felt that carrying the torch would be inappropriate, and another member of staff, Ian Campbell, was instead nominated for his 20 years of volunteering to organise Paralympic sport. But the growing suspicion around torch relay places meant that his name was still included in the Times Higher Education Supplement piece.

There was a further South Korean connection in the nominations of the country’s ambassador to the UK, and the former British ambassador to Korea: Martin Uden, undermining the promise of Olympics minister Hugh Robertson that “The last thing the Olympics needs is a middle aged, overweight politician to run with it.”

Since being nominated Uden had left the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take up a position as Managing Director at UK Trade and Industry. Their report on his participation — like his nomination story — made no mention of the reasons for his nomination, but did say that Martin “has responsibility for the British Business Embassy, being held at Lancaster House in London during the Olympics.” During the Games, they said, Lancaster House would be “transformed into a hub which will host a programme of conferences, events and networking opportunities for British and international businesses.”

The journalists and media bosses

Admirably, The International Olympic Committee gave 57 of its 117 places to members of the World Food Programme. Of the remainder, many went to senior members of the IOC itself, such as Richard Carrión, chair of the finance and audit commissions, and a member of the Marketing, TV and New Media Rights Commissions, who would carry the torch through Westminster without a nomination story.

But the organisation also, as the Korean Joongang Daily explained frankly, “traditionally selects runners from among reporters”.

One of those was Chun Su-jin, a reporter covering the Games for JoongAng Ilbo. The Joongang Daily piece explained that Su-jin had to undertake an examination process by LOCOG, who “requested Chun answer several questions in 34 different categories including ones pertinent to her physical condition”. They didn’t say if the questions asked about her contribution to the community, but her nomination story does not mention one — instead focusing on her excitement about reporting on her country’s biggest Olympic star (since removed).

Also reporting on the Games after carrying the torch would be Gao Dianmin, director of the London Bureau of Xinhua and member of the International Olympic Committee press commission. In Royal Tunbridge Wells another IOC press commission member, La Gazzetta dello Sport reporter Giovanni Merlo, would carry the torch, as would Daily Mail Chief Sports Writer Patrick Collins, while The Scotsman’s Chief Sports Writer had already carried his torch through Dumfries.

The IOC wasn’t alone in nominating journalists. Reuters’ Paul Radford, also a member of the IOC press commission, was nominated by LOCOG chair Sebastian Coe. Sports journalists from Nigeria, Brazil, China and Poland would carry the torch, as would two from The Sun: Vikki Orvice, who was nominated after she recovered from cancer, and boxing reporter Colin Hart. Along with Vikki, the BBC Sport’s Head of Major Events, Dave Gordon was one of the few journalists to report on his own involvement, despite not being listed on the official site.

Sport journalists weren’t the only reporters to be nominated. The editor of Independent Electrical Retailer magazine carried a torch, as did the Managing Editor of special interest publisher Chip, and technology journalist Michael Peuckert — all nominated by Samsung. Another Samsung nominee, the founder of a technology blog which reviews phone apps, wrote:

“[Selection] is solely down to the olympic committee. But what qualifies you to carry the torch a bit towards London? In my story I remembered the year 1992, when the Olympic Winter Games were held in Albertville in France. My uncle and his family live in Chambéry, which is also located in the French high alps and with close to the venue of the games at that time. Of course the committee was searching for people who have rendered outstanding social or athletic services to carry the torch. That time my cousin was accorded this honour. He was and is a very good athlete in several disciplines. I was really happy for him then and admired him. But I knew: even if I would go in for sports — it would never be enough to reach a higher level.”

This story was enough for LOCOG to approve his nomination to carry the Olympic torch — but they did not publish it.

Listed on the official torchbearer site before disappearing once they had carried the torch were Sky‘s head of Broadcast Networks; the Chief Executive of the Financial Times; and the Acting Group CEO of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Executives at NBC in the US and Channel Nine in Australia were still to carry the torch.

Mystery torchbearers

In Sussex and Dorset locals who asked questions about torchbearers were given short shrift. Lauren O’Hara, who watched the torch go through Sussex, said:

“What surprised me when I asked the organisers about the runners was that they patently had no information apart from the name — and a number of people were expressing great surprise that no ‘local heroes’ had been chosen. The woman behind me said she knew of a number of people who had been nominated and not contacted.
“I feel there has has been a lack of transparency over this. The children and me were cheering not just the flame but the idea that the people who carried it were people who had in some way earned the honour. That should have been the charm — that this was the ‘people’s torch’.”

The Bournemouth Echo and the Argus in Sussex also asked questions of those running through its region and found executives taking places which could instead have gone to others.

Unsuccessful nominees in the region included Sophie Wells, a 13-year-old disabled girl from Eastbourne, nominated to carry the Olympic torch by her swimming teacher, Simon Melaniphy, who was nominated by his father for his inspirational activities as a Prince’s Trust mentor and fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation, and single mother Julie Drake who was nominated for her work “inspiring her community” in Brighton. Her nominator, Shani Hart — “presumed whoever got it was in a better position”.

They were, although perhaps not in the way she meant. Many of the names were those of executives at telecomms companies which had business relationships with Samsung in Russia, Slovakia, Germany, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa and Hungary.

As torchbearers from overseas were grouped together for logistical reasons, communities in Stansted and North Wales found themselves asking why these middle aged executives were carrying the torch through their towns with stories baldly stating that they worked for “one of the biggest chain group stock companies on 3C digital products in China”, or “a retail veteran with over 12 years’ industry experience, with more than 16 years’ government background.”

One Russian technology company executive ran with the story of a theatre director who happened to share the same first name; another disappeared from the official list, only to be replaced by what appeared to be a relative from the same Slovakian telecomms firm.

LOCOG refused to publicly condemn the nominations, instead emphasising that “The same torchbearer selection criteria applied across the whole relay — i.e. personal bests and/or contribution to the community.”

It was becoming harder for people to believe that. In Brighton Shani Hart told the Argus: “Having sponsors carrying the torch is not what they made the torch relay out to be.” And it wasn’t.

Part 5: 8,000 Holes

In June 2011, when the design for the official Olympic torch was unveiled, the Chair of LOCOG Sebastian Coe had said:

“The Torch that carries the Olympic Flame during the Olympic Torch Relay is one of the most recognisable and significant symbols of an Olympic Games. Members of the public right across the UK are busy nominating inspiring people to be Torchbearers and I am thrilled we have a beautifully designed, engineered and crafted Torch for them to carry.
“Integral to the design are the 8,000 circles, a lasting representation of the Torchbearer stories of personal achievement or contribution to their local community that will be showcased with every step of the Relay.”

But too many of those 8,000 circles turned out to be merely holes where local heroes should have been. The “message of inclusion” which the torch was supposed to represent had been replaced with a message of exclusion. At almost every point where places were split up, a proportion was siphoned for allocation through non-public processes, whether the 15% of Lloyds TSB places for staff; the 10% of Samsung’s places; Coca Cola’s nomination judges carrying the torch as Future Flames, or the corporate partners who rewarded board members and business partners.

Places were reallocated away from public availability towards internal processes: infographic by Caroline Beavon

Julie Hilling, an MP who raised the issue of torchbearer places in Parliament, and who nominated Ruth Madeley, an inspirational young wheelchair user who now works for the charity Whizzkids, says that:

“The torch relay has been a great success in bringing communities together to celebrate the Olympics, but it’s a real shame that LOCOG and the sponsors have not lived up to their duty to have torch-bearers selected because they are inspirational.
“It is disgraceful that people who have served their community or overcome adversity in their lives have been replaced by relations and executives of the sponsors. Where are their “inspirational stories”? LOCOG should have ensured they and the sponsors lived up to their promises. There are still many questions to be answered.”

Former culture and sport minister Sion Simon goes further:

“LOCOG have comprehensively failed to keep the promises they made about who would carry the torch.
“They gave assurances about young people, about local heroes and about no nepotism. All have been systematically broken, apparently without shame or sanction. Sponsors have been allowed to use what was supposed to be a ‘people’s privilege’ as just another marketing tool to be bought and sold.
“This is a scandal just as surely as if it were financial. It is ultimately down to the Government, who created LOCOG, to see that these questions are publicly answered. Only the Prime Minister can give the public the assurances they seek, and he should.”

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When the Olympic flame passed through their borough on July 24 Jack Binstead’s family was on a plane out of the country.

“We are not even going to be here to see the torch relay because I don’t think he wants to see it,” says Penny Binstead.

“We are not even going to be here to see the torch relay because I don’t think he wants to see it.”
“We are going to be on a plane at 7.30 — that is how we are going to deal with it. Jack is excited about the Paralympics — we are going to go and see David Weir race — but I did not want him to be around on the day the torch comes through.
“He has won gold medals for the Kingston borough in the London youth games; he has represented the Kingston borough four or five years on the trot now. He goes to the sports awards and he gets his medals and everyone knows him. He has won the mini London marathon three times for the Kingston borough — once with a broken leg and once with ribs broken. So it just would have been nice for them to recognise that.
“Thinking that he was going to be part of this particular Olympics — even though he was not racing — it would have been something that he would have cherished. It would have been something that would have been special for him, something which may have spurred him on, thinking: ‘Great. I have done this. I have done something towards it, and I can look forwards now to the next Olympics’.”

Instead, on the day that Jack’s family flies out, the Olympic torch will be carried by Chai Patel — a former Labour Party donor previously caught up in the Cash for Peerages scandal and now one of the largest donors to the British Olympic Association. Sujith Weerasinghe, Olympics Operations Manager for BP, will carry the torch too, having written his own nomination story. The CEO of the BFI and Samsung’s UK Vice President were listed to carry that day, but they have since disappeared from the site. Joe Hemani has also disappeared from the site: he was due to carry the torch with the simple nomination story “Joe Hemani is the founder and single shareholder of Westcoast Ltd which was established in 1984.” The vice president of Visa Europe runs with a story written by herself, as does the assistant manager of Carphone Warehouse Leeds — it says “Using video technology, I took it upon myself to enhance and personalise the service customers get at Carphone Warehouse and Best Buy Europe.” The head of the company designing the Coca Cola pavilion carries a torch on that day, and while chefs who graduated from Jamie Oliver’s inspirational apprentice programme Fifteen are running — so is the Marketing and Commercial Manager for Jamie Oliver Ltd. And running without any story at all is Paul Eccleston, managing director at techhnology distributor SDG.

A year on from the torch relay Jack — who was expected to compete in the next paralympics — decided to retire from wheelchair racing. Neither he, his family nor his agent would comment further on the decision.


If there was ever a genuine desire for the Torch Relay to be “for everybody” with a focus on youth, “connecting everyone to the Games through the stories of young people”, that desire has not been fulfilled: by the time 7,000 stories had been published barely a third of those were under 25, over a thousand short of the numbers promised.

With only three promises to deliver — 90% of places going to the ‘general public’; half of places given to young people between 12 and 24; and “8,000 inspirational stories” — the organisers of the 2012 Olympic torch relay had failed to meet any of them.

Outside of the public campaigns run by LOCOG and the three presenting partners, responsible for 76% of places — hundreds of which had never been offered publicly — LOCOG could provide no details of which members of the general public had been nominated, or whether any processes existed to ensure that the 90% claim could be met.

Meanwhile, over 1,500 nomination stories were missing from the website, and continuing investigation of those names published without stories found many linked to people holding senior positions in companies connected to sponsors, at sponsor organisations themselves, or covering the industries the sponsors operated in.

Ultimately, this not only left many deserving individuals without their ‘moment to shine’, it also affected those that did carry the torch.

“It sours it.”

Geoff Holt was one of those. Nominated to carry the torch by Yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur because he “epitomised courage”, Geoff is the first quadriplegic to sail single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the last few years he has been voted BBC South Sports Personality of the Year, received a British Airways Great Briton Award, and awarded an MBE for services to disabled sailing. In her nomination Dame Ellen said: “He is always positive and always smiling — a really nice person.”

But Geoff thinks that the handling of torchbearer places by sponsors and LOCOG has damaged the experience of carrying the torch.

“It sours it. I think it’s inevitable. If you’re asking yourself why the other torchbearers are there, it’s not right.
“One torchbearer number on my bus, for example, had eight people with that number. They got off and passed the torch round in a circle. They were from a cash and carry warehouse in Portsmouth, nominated by Coca Cola — they sell their drinks.
“And when you have people from different countries [carrying the torch] you start to ask yourself why they are here. Now if that person has saved a life in Beijing or raised £100,000, or helped people, then bring it on. But because it happens to be an executive who the sponsors want to do business with in future it seems — well, you realise you are looking at the coalface of corporate reality.
“Then if you can’t find out from the internet what their story is, then — because it’s supposed to be open and transparent — you wonder: this is our Olympics. What are they trying to keep from us?”

Originally crowdsourced and published on Help Me Investigate, and available as an ebook on Leanpub. All proceeds of 8,000 Holes go to the Brittle Bone Society. You can read more about the process behind the investigation on the Online Journalism Blog.

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