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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
A torch-bearer for the UN
By Eric Falt
Director of Communications, United Nations Environment Programme

Eric Falt, left, receives the Olympic Torch from Jean-Michel Cousteau
Eric, left, receives the Olympic Torch from Jean-Michel Cousteau

At 4pm, in the afternoon heat of Kalyvia outside Athens, I do not really need to warm up.

I am preparing to carry the Olympic torch on behalf of my organisation - the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

With world-famous marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau and devoted Greek-American environmentalist Tony Diamantidis, I have been invited by the Greek organisers to be part of the Global Torch Relay, only 24 hours before the flame reaches the Olympic Stadium.

In fact, I appear to be the last non-Greek to carry the torch. Who could refuse such an offer?

The environment is officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the third pillar of Olympism - and UNEP has tried to raise the importance and visibility of environmental issues in the games.

'Foul shantytown'

The idea is simple, albeit still new to many. The quality of the environment affects sports - who wants to jog amidst garbage? - and sports affect the environment.

The sport community - from events organisers and stadium builders to sports goods manufacturers and the athletes themselves - must therefore ensure that sport creates the minimum harm and the maximum benefit to society and nature.

As I look around, I can see that the whole of Greece has mobilised to offer its most inviting face. The country has been scrubbed clean.

The 2004 games will not be the "greenest" ever, but Athens has gone a long way from being the "foul, drunken shantytown plagued by water shortages, campfire smoke and sewage" depicted in a description of the ancient games that took place here 2,000 years ago.

Moving ideals

At 4.15pm, I hear a roar from the Greek crowd as Jean-Michel approaches.

I light my torch to his and finally start my short stretch of running.

Somehow, I think back to the beginning of my career and the first time I entered the UN headquarters in New York.

With goose bumps rising on my skin, I remember another route lined with people 11 years ago, when I was part of the first UN group to enter Haiti after the ousting of military dictators
Eric Falt

I feel the same sort of emotion. It should be no surprise, though, since the Olympics and the UN share many of the same ideals and principles.

I run along the Olympic route lined with olive trees, with thousands of people cheering, and hundreds of children waving olive branches and chanting "Hellas! Hellas!"

With goose bumps rising on my skin, I remember another route lined with people 11 years ago, when I was part of the first UN group to enter Haiti after the ousting of military dictators. The reason for the joy of the people was much different then, but on both occasions I find them "liberated".

The Greeks are liberated from the wait and the anxiety, satisfied with their collective achievement. The Olympic Games are here at last and I can see unmistakable pride and happiness all around.

Sport, politics, peace and the environment. Who says they are not connected?




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