Winter Olympics fever lights up Kelowna

More than 15,000 people jammed City Park on Monday night to welcome the 2010 Winter Olympics flame to the Okanagan.

Olympic medallist Scott Frandsen brings the torch for the 2010 Winter Olympics into City Park for a  reception that attracted an estimated crowd of more than 15

Olympic medallist Scott Frandsen brings the torch for the 2010 Winter Olympics into City Park for a reception that attracted an estimated crowd of more than 15

The Olympic flame left Kelowna Tuesday morning after a raucous greeting the night before.

The flame, burning in one of 12,000 specially made white and silver torches, arrived in the city to a thunderous ovation Monday night as a crowd in excess of the expected 15,000 greeted it in City Park.

Kelowna’s Scott Frandsen, a silver medal winning rower in Beijing in 2008, carried the torch on its final leg into City Park, where he lit the cauldron in front of Premier Gordon Campbell, Mayor Sharon Shepherd, MP Ron Cannan, MLAs Steve Thomson, Norm Letnick and Ben Stewart, and torch relay director Jim Richards.

As he did, the huge crowd roared its approval.

“This is really exciting,” said a smiling Frandsen.

He was one of 11 torchbearers to carry the flame in Kelowna on Monday night, followed by 52 more on Tuesday morning, including local favourites such as retired United Church Minister and Capital News columnist Albert Baldeo and retired fire chief Gerry Zimmermann.

The first Kelowna runner was a very excited Wade Stolz, who hollered for joy when his torch was lit on the Kelowna side of the William R. Bennett Bridge at 6:28 p.m. Monday evening. As he headed up Harvey Avenue he jumped in the air waving the torch in the night sky.

“It’s awesome,” said Stolz when asked how it felt to be the first torchbearer in Kelowna. “I’m really proud. It’s an awesome opportunity and it’s great to be a Canadian.”

Half an hour later, Frandsen carried the torch into the park and lit the cauldron on the large stage set up for the event.

By the time the torch arrived in the park, the crowd had been whipped up into a frenzy by entertainers and the celebration continued even after the cauldron was lit. Young and old danced and cheered and waved thousands of small paper Canadian flags.

A beaming Mayor Sharon Shepherd called the turnout “absolutely amazing.”

She was smiling even more after the huge crowd serenaded her with a chorus of happy birthday to mark her 60th birthday on Monday .

“This really was a day full of surprises,” said Shepherd after the ceremony.

Campbell, sporting a recuperative boot on his right foot after undergoing minor surgery recently, said he wanted to come to the Okanagan to help welcome the flame.

He told the crowd the Olympic flame has shone brighter and brighter since re-entering B.C. late last week. “These are Canada’s Olympics, these are B.C.’s Olympics and, tonight, these are Kelowna’s Olympics,” Campbell shouted to a huge cheer from the crowd.

He then led the thousands on hand in a rousing “Go Canada, Go” cheer.

The event, planned by the city and Olympic torch route officials, marked the 88th day of the 106-day cross-country torch relay, an event that will cover a total of 45,000 kilometres and come within an hour’s reach of 90 per cent of Canada’s entire population.

The Kelowna party attracted a large mix of young and old, with many families showing up on the fine but chilly evening.

For eight-year-old Brianna Bobbitt, who waited for hours with her mom to see the torch carried by Frandsen, the wait was worth it.

The little girl, who is going to be at the Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Vancouver Feb. 12 with her family, as well as see some hockey games, said she was very exited to be so close to the torch.

Standing just a few feet from Frandsen as he ran past in the park, the youngster said she was there because it was about Canada and “that’s my country.”

For others, such as Kelowna’s Burton Bigford, 51, carrying the torch was a dream come true. He carried the torch in Penticton earlier in the day and then went to City Park to see it arrive in his own city.

“It’s beautiful. I am awestruck,” he said as people gathered around him to have their picture taken with him and his torch. He said he planned to encase the torch and his torchbearers uniform “as is” to preserve the moment.

Kelowna Capital News