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Reporter's Notebook: The (Solar) Torch Is Passed to an Older Generation

It was the kind of meeting Silicon Valley is famous for: a group of casually clad, extremely smart people, sipping lattes in a conference room papered with hundreds of Post-It notes on the walls to spur innovative thinking and fresh ideas.

In the past, this kind of meeting might have helped inspire Google or the iPod. But this get-together at a high-tech design firm in Palo Alto, Calif., last January was different.

Instead of a technological innovation, this meeting—among organizers of the National Senior Games and a select group of event planners and designers—was about making a dazzling high-tech splash on the streets of San Francisco. What could they design that would spotlight and celebrate the Senior Games? Something new but traditional, fun but full of meaning.

A unique torch

Their answer: a solar-powered, first-of-its-kind Olympic torch, crafted from the wood of an ancient redwood tree and topped with high-efficiency LED lights for a bright flame fueled only by solar-charged batteries.

It’s a torch lit with renewable energy and today it will travel about 75 miles from the landmark Golden Gate Bridge to leafy Palo Alto, to mark the official opening of the games.

The symbolism

The torch is highly symbolic, says the man who helped design it. “Redwood certainly has a connection to California,” explains Michael Olmstead, whose other high-tech event work has included the Super Bowl and two presidential inaugurations. Redwoods, he says, “are one of the oldest trees in the world,” and their longevity is a perfect symbol for the Senior Games. The torch’s renewable energy source underscores the idea of sustaining life and health—and the environment.

“We’ve tried to use the games as a platform for things that are important to us here,” says Anne Warner Cribbs, the president and CEO of the Senior Games local organizing committee.

California glitz

Of course, Californians also know something about show-biz glitz, and Cribbs believes the torch and the 12-foot-high mirrored cauldron (also solar-powered), which will be lit up Saturday night, are going to dazzle—as will the torch relay, which starts at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge Saturday at 2 p.m.

From there, the torch will be passed among 56 volunteers—many of them local dignitaries and sports celebrities—who will carry it through Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 and onto a sailboat, which will take the torch to AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team.

At the ballpark, figure skater Peggy Fleming, a 1968 Olympic gold medal winner, will carry the torch out to home plate at 6 p.m. for a special ceremony before the opening pitch of the game between the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies.

The torch will then travel by train south to Palo Alto, where it will be carried down the town’s main street to City Hall by former Stanford University all-American basketball star and 1996 U.S. Olympian Jennifer Azzi.

Those who have already seen and touched the torch are impressed.

“It looks and feels like a beautiful work of art,” says Beth Guislin, 59, a volunteer and participant in the games, who along with her husband, John, also 59, will be among the torch bearers Saturday.

Attracting crowds

Of course, the ultimate goal of the torch relay is to attract public interest and attention. Admission to all events at the games is free, to encourage local residents of all ages to attend and watch the 10,000 athletes, who range in age from 50 to 100, during the next two weeks.

The prominent route of the relay is planned for maximum exposure: “Fisherman’s Wharf on a Saturday afternoon in August,” says Olmstead, referring to the famous tourist district of San Francisco. “We’ll get a lot of people.”

Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology.

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