Buoyed by large cheering crowds, the Olympic Torch made its way through Durham on Sunday bringing with it the spirit of the Olympics.
Not even searing heat and humidity were able to keep people from lining the streets along the route. Hundreds of people lined the wall surrounding East Campus on Main Street, and more than a thousand people watched as the flame made its way down Chapel Drive and stopped in front of the Duke Chapel for more than a minute, as Duke track and field coach and former Olympic coach Al Buehler held aloft the symbol of the Olympics.
"You've got to have the thrill of just being a part of all this, be excited about it," Buehler said. "I've marched in so many Olympic Opening Ceremonies where your hair just stands up on end, and you tingle all over because you're so proud to be part of the U.S. Olympic team.... There's something special about the Olympics."
The 1996 Olympic Torch Relay will cross through 42 states on its 84-day, 15,000-mile journey leading up until the Centennial Olympic Games, which begin in Atlanta in less than a month on July 19. On Sunday, it was Durham's turn to take the spotlight, as the torch made one of its few scheduled stops along its lengthy route at North Carolina Central University, the home of Dr. Leroy Walker, president of the United States Olympic Committee.
A large crowd at NCCU cheered on the 78-year-old Walker when he took the torch from former NCCU track star and Olympian Charles Foster and ran with it to the stage assembled in front of the Leroy T. Walker Athletic Complex. At the stage, Walker handed the flame to Buehler, who then handed it to three others before Walker received the torch again and lit a cauldron with it.
"I told the [United States Olympic] Committee that I wished to use my presidential prerogative-that if the torch was going to come through North Carolina, then it had to come to North Carolina Central University," Walker said. "I have stood on the shoulders of the people of [Durham] to see out of the horizon, so that I could be in this position. For that, I am indebted to you, and I thought it was only appropriate that this cauldron be lit in front of you.
"What you see today is largely what you've contributed to, and what I am today, after all my years in North Carolina, is part of your legacy."
People on their way to church, kids getting ready for baseball games and others from all around stood in rapt, watching the flame dance and listening to Walker and numerous officials discuss the significance of the Olympics and the torch itself.
"Behold the flame-it is the fire of passion that burns within our souls," said Rennie Truitt, the senior manager of the Olympic Torch Relay. "It is the heat that moves our greatest athletes to break the barriers of human performance. It is the spirit that inspires us all to raise heroes upon our shoulders and shed tears for their triumphs. It is the enlightenment of one citizen giving selflessly to another, and it is the dream of one world, united in peace."
After concluding the ceremonies at NCCU, the torch slowly made its way through Durham. Local community heroes carried the torch along its route through the city and down Main Street past East Campus. On West Campus, church services in the Duke Chapel let out early, allowing churchgoers to see the flame.
Buehler, who has spent his entire career at Duke, waited patiently for the torch to arrive, and then proceeded up the Chapel steps, holding aloft the flame for everyone to see. For nearly a minute, Buehler stood there amidst the loud applause, while the Chapel Bells played the Olympic theme music.
"It's such a thrill to be a part of the Olympic Spirit, the Olympic movement," Buehler said. "The term used to be called patriotism. One would say, 'I'm proud to be an American.' I think most of us feel that way."
Buehler then ran down the steps and passed the flame along to the next person. After he was done, Buehler and Walker, who had also hustled over to Duke, greeted each other warmly. The two long-time friends have attempted to unite the Durham community for years through sport-most notably track and field.
"This is special, Buehler said. "It's significant that my whole athletic career after college has been at Duke University. My whole professional career has been at Duke University, and I'm indebted to the people, the University-just think of all the athletes that I've coached over the years.
"We've had support from the administration to do international track meets. For Walker and I to be able to do that in a city that survived back when integration was taking place, we had no real riots or sit-ins because we were doing track meets with blacks and whites out there."
Walker was just as elated as Buehler. He noted how special it was for him to be able to share this day and honor with Buehler, whom he called his twin-brother. Inseparably, they have accomplished so much, Walker remarked.
"The people are responding to what the Olympic movement is all about, what the Olympic spirit is all about," Walker said. "[The torch] is what the Olympics are all about, even beyond the 16 days of glory. It's been wonderful.
"I've been in the Olympic movement my entire career-Atlanta will be my 10th Olympic Games-but this is the culmination. There's nothing quite like this. When you feel the torch, it's almost like a spirit going through you because you know what it's all about. This was very special because it's home."