Q: I am trying to find more information about the Olympic torch that passed through this area, possibly in the fall of 1964. The torch was carried by high school cross country teams and others as it came down I-55/70 toward St. Louis. Hopefully you can fill in the details.
Larry Shasteen, Collinsville
A: This is one time I’m hoping someone can prove me wrong, because I can find no evidence that the Olympic torch has ever made its way through the metro-east — at least, not the torch that would wind up igniting the fabled summer games.
According to its records, the International Olympic Committee has staged 20 relays in Olympic history. Only three have come to St. Louis, and, as far as I can tell, none has crossed the river.
The last appearance was June 17, 2004, for the Athens Olympics. Usually when the games are hosted in a foreign city, the torch doesn’t even show up in the United States. But partly because Athens had lost out on hosting the games in 1996, which marked the 100th anniversary of the competition’s revival, the committee scheduled an abbreviated U.S. tour with ceremonies in New York, Atlanta, L.A. — and St. Louis, which was celebrating its own centennial anniversary of the 1904 Olympics.
One of the torchbearers was Ruth Kult, of Fairview Heights, who proudly carried the torch as she rolled along in her wheelchair over her allotted 400 yards along the 34-mile course. A former member of the Air Force, Kult had been paralyzed in a 1987 car accident.
“I was surprised and honored that I was chosen,” said Kult, who was busy participating in the 24th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games in St. Louis at the time. “There were a lot of people to choose from, and I just got lucky and they picked me.”
Among the other lucky runners were Steven Bunn and Steven Clifford, of Belleville; James Ray and Patrick Rummerfield, of O’Fallon; and Donald Shaffer, of Columbia, who wound up among such notables as Olympic champions Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner and Bonnie Blair. And, of course, who better to light the Olympic cauldron at the base of Art Hill in Forest Park than East St. Louis gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
The first time the area witnessed the thrilling spectacle was June 6, 1984, but, again, the ceremony bypassed Illinois as it continued a 9,000-mile journey to Los Angeles, where the Olympics opened July 28. Starting in Festus, Missouri, the torch made its way to Arnold, up Telegraph and eventually to the Gateway Arch. From there it headed west to end the day in Mount Sterling, Missouri.
This time, the relay was turned into a controversial fundraising event. Among the metro-east’s torchbearers this time was Beverly Fenner, a 24-year-old Belleville woman who had raised $3,000 to help the city’s YMCA. The Department of Defense contract management assistant said she enjoyed the opportunity “to help my hometown and the Olympics and get to run, too.”
The only other time the torch made it to the nation’s heartland was on June 4, 1996, as it made its way from Los Angeles to Atlanta for the opening of the games on July 19. As in 1984, the relay started in Festus, north to St. Louis and then west again to Francis Field at Washington University. Among the torchbearers who had won a drawing were Richard Erdmann, of Fairview Heights; JoAnn Pisel, of Edgemont; and Kelvin Jones, of East St. Louis. Now you might expect that after nighttime ceremonies under the Arch, during which Joyner-Kersee again lit the cauldron, that the torch would have continued east into Illinois. Instead, it was loaded onto the American Queen riverboat and taken to Hannibal, Missouri.
So unless there was some special relay simply for the opportunity of showing off the torch (which likely would have been the only reason it would have been in the fall), I find no record of it ever being run through the metro-east. The only other possibility is that you may be remembering a Special Olympics relay, which has frequently made its way through the area. In 2015, for example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was among several law enforcement agencies that helped escort the Flame of Hope through Belleville streets to raise awareness for the Special Olympics. Other than that, I can find nothing on an Olympic torch run in the metro-east, although, as I said, I would welcome information to the contrary.
Who is credited for introducing the Olympic torch relay?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: In 1934, Adolf Hitler wanted all German citizens to own cars, so, using a design by Ferdinand Porsche, he sponsored a state-owned factory to turn out a small car shaped like a beetle that came complete with an air-cooled, four-cylinder, rear-mounted engine so it wouldn’t freeze. They called it the “Kraft durch Freude Wagen” — the strength through joy car. After the war it became the more popular Volkswagen, or People’s Car, and the city where it was built — Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben — was renamed Wolfsburg.