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London 2012: Post-war Europe's Olympic relay

Cdr Collins shows the torch to the Mayor of Torquay, Denys Gilley
Image caption Cdr Collins (right) shows the torch to the Mayor of Torquay, Denys Gilley

Anyone who thinks the planners of this year's Olympic torch relay have a difficult job may want to spare a thought for Commander Bill Collins, organiser of the 1948 version.

Working from a meagre budget and without the benefit of modern communication methods, the Loughborough athletics coach overcame the odds to set up a cross-Europe relay.

Chosen by Lord Burghley's organising committee, thanks in part to his Navy background, Cdr Collins was asked to replicate the relay from Olympia in Greece which had been pioneered by the Germans at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Image caption The torch was enthusiastically greeted between Dover and London

According to Olympics historian Philip Barker, the role transformed the retired seaman into a well-known figure, both at home and abroad.

He said: "People would write him letters asking if they could carry the flame. 1947 was a particularly bitter winter and in his replies he would show his sense of humour by saying: 'I hope you are keeping warm'.

"In Malta he was feted as this great Olympics organiser. Compare that to now when I don't think I could even tell you who's organising the current relay."

Newspaper criticism

The obstacles facing Cdr Collins as he set about plotting a course from Greece to London were numerous.

Working from a post-war budget, he was forced to opt for the most direct route available while finding a suitably cheap metal - aluminium - for the torches.

And civil war in Greece meant he had to work closely with the ruling government to steer clear of guerrilla forces plotting to disrupt the relay.

Cdr Collins wanted to use British navy ships to transport the torch at various points and had to employ all of his skills of persuasiveness to convince sceptical military bosses - left with virtually no resources after World War II - to agree.

And when the features editor of London's Evening Standard wrote a piece describing the idea of the relay as "antiquarian" and "portentous", Cdr Collins was quick to write a letter back to the newspaper passionately defending his project.

In fact, letter-writing was a major part of the role, with negotiations with the various European governments being largely conducted via written correspondence taking several days to travel back and forth.

One of the more controversial parts of the relay surrounded the choice of runner for the final stretch of the relay into the opening ceremony at Wembley Stadium.

The honour was handed to relatively unknown quarter-miler John Mark, whose athletic good looks were controversially chosen over the favourite-but-bespectacled miler Sydney Wooderson or the widely-expected Duke of Edinburgh.

'Build the drama'

Mr Barker said it was ironic, given the criticism the Chinese received for substituting a young singer at the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 for a more photogenic alternative, that Britain "had done much the same thing in 1948".

Image caption 1,416 torchbearers took part in the 1948 relay

In the end, the relay was declared a huge success with people lining the streets between Dover and London - sometimes in the middle of the night - to catch a glimpse of the torch.

The opening ceremony was also a hailed a triumph with Mark following Cdr Collins' instructions to "milk the moment" and "build the drama" to the letter.

After the Olympics, Cdr Collins built on his success, helping to introduce the Queen's Baton Relay at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, another custom which has been made a permanent fixture.

He also founded the Torch Trophy Trust in the 1960s, which aims to encourage volunteers in sport.

When he died in 1989, Cdr Collins bequeathed the original torch he was awarded for his role organising the 1948 relay to his former workplace Loughborough College.

The torch is now used by the college in a scheme whichencourages young people to get involved in sport.

Cdr Collins would no doubt take pride in the fact his efforts 64 years ago are now inspiring the next generation of Olympians.

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