In his early 40s, George Abraham is known as the man who has used the game of cricket to encourage a competitive spirit and confidence among the blind. He is the man who singlehandedly put cricket for the blind on the world map, literally.
It was Wednesday, July 10, 1996, the time 11.30 p.m. The telephone rang. It was a call from Coca-Cola, Mumbai. The voice at the other end said, “Can you arrange for a US visa? We have nominated you as one of the six runners who will participate in the Olympic torch relay at Atlanta. You will have to leave for Atlanta tomorrow evening.”
I pinched myself hard. It hurt. I certainly wasn’t dreaming. But I had less than one day to get everything in order. The fax machine swung into action. I had to fill various forms, complete certain formalities before the morning. Getting the visa was expected to be the biggest stumbling block, but fortunately, I got it within half an hour, thanks to friendly officials at the US Embassy. Before the day was out, I was on the flight to Atlanta along with the rest of the five members of the Indian Olympic torch relay team.
We arrived at Atlanta on the afternoon of July 12 and stayed there for a day before heading to Savannah. We spent the night at Savannah. The next day, July 14, was D-day.
None of us torchbearers was an athlete. I, for example, hadn’t run for nearly 15 years. I must admit I was nervous. Early next day, after a light breakfast of cereal, toast and fruit juice, we set out for Thompson town. The Indian team was scheduled to run between 4.30 pm and 5.15 pm there.
The drive was quiet. All of us were thinking about the event. The beautiful countryside we were driving through, just passed us by. We arrived at Thompson in the afternoon. We decided to go for an exploratory drive along the relay route we were to take, with an idea of familiarising ourselves with it.
After a quick bite at a small wayside restaurant, we got into our Olympic torch relay uniforms. By half past three we had reached the collection point. We were received by officials from the International Olympic Committee, who were in charge of the Thompson leg of the torch relay.
Thompson is a small town and the Olympic torch relay was a big event for the people of that town. Hundreds of men, women and children had begun lining the roads eagerly.
We were handed over our torches and our chest numbers at the collection point. I was chest number 109 and had to run inside the town near the railway crossing. We got into the comforts of airconditioned Olympic vans that drove us to the starting point. At this point we were given a detailed brief on the Olympic torch run.
The flame had left Athens by a special aircraft almost two months ago and had been brought to Los Angeles. From there 10,000 torchbearers were carrying the flame across the US right up to Atlanta. The relay route was carefully mapped so as to cover as many towns as possible. The torch symbolised the spirit of love and togetherness. Of the 10,000 runners, 800 were from overseas. The runners were not necessarily athletes. There were men, women and children — old and young, black, brown and white, able-bodied and disabled, celebrities, professionals and students coming from various sections of society.
By 4.50 pm I was dropped off at my starting point. I was greeted with loud cheers and treated like a movie star. The experience was overwhelming. Just then a motor cycle approached me. The cop dismounted and took the torch from me. He turned on the gas and it gave out a whistling sound. Soon after, the torchbearing runner appeared. I moved to the middle of the road and held out my torch. Within seconds, the flame was transferred onto my torch and I was on my way.
The crowds were waving and cheering me on. The adrenalin had begun to flow, and I was on cloud nine. The torch to begin with, weighed about three-and-half pounds, but by the time I had completed three-fourths of my run, it felt like half a ton. It was only due to the excitement of the occasion and sheer will power that I hung on. My right hand was stiff and hurting like mad, but I was determined to carry the torch to the finish.
Kendrick, the American escort runner, kept egging me on right to the very end. This was a once in a lifetime experience. I was quite relieved to pass on the flame to the next runner at the end of my one km stretch.
I was mobbed by the excited crowds. For that moment I felt like a star. I thought to myself, perhaps Amitabh Bachchan feels this way every day of his life. I lost count of the number of photographs I must have posed for or the number of autographs I must have signed that afternoon.
For another half an hour, we were talking to the press and cameras continued to click. By the time we got back to our hotel rooms that night, we were totally exhausted. The following morning it was time to pack. The once in a lifetime experience was over. It was now part of history. The numerous photographs we had taken and the magnificent torch that each of one us was carrying back home as a souvenir of our great experience, were the only physical reminders of the event. But it had become imprinted in our minds forever.
Someone remarked that on July 14 the wonderful people of Thomson town treated us like real superstars. I’m glad we were, even if only for a day.
Read a fascinating profile of George Abraham in this very features section, titled “The Boy who Lacked Sight but Had Vision’.