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Handing off a light that warms the world

Well, they couldn't have lit the Olympic caldron to get the winter Games going in Salt Lake City without me.

That's a fairly whopping piece of journalistic license, because if I had muffed it and let the flame go out on my leg of the torch run, it turns out there's a backup plan - a secure container which was also lit with the original flame from Athens and which could reignite the one carried by the torch-runners, should a mishap occur.

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Still, it was an experience both sobering and moving, especially as the volunteer handlers in the caravan that accompanied the flame on its 13,500- mile journey through 46 US states kept telling each of us torch-runners: "Remember, on your leg of the run, you'll be the only person in the world carrying the flame from Athens en route to the 2002 Games."

Of course, it was no big deal for them. They'd been on the road for 64 days already, shepherding more than 11,000 runners, who each ran two-tenths of a mile before passing the flame along to the next runner. The flame was also transported from time to time by automobile, airplane, train, ship, skier, horse-drawn sleigh, snowmobile, ice skater, covered wagon, and pony express.

My run with the torch that carried the flame took place last week on a stretch of Highway 224 in Park City, Utah, about 20 miles from Salt Lake City on the second-to-last day of the flame's procession across the nation. The next day, the last runner carried it into the Olympic stadium and the 18 members of the gold-medal winning 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey team grasped the torch and fired up the caldron for the 2002 Games - with my flame. Actually, the flame of some 11,000 other runners. Actually, the flame of all Americans, and of all the world.

For me, it began last November when I got a letter from Mitt Romney, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games, inviting me to be a runner in the torch relay.

It seemed an honor to my newspaper, which had for years covered at great length and great expense the campaign and preparations to bring the Games to Salt Lake City. We'd written critical stories and editorials when there was misconduct and malfeasance. But in general, like most Utahns, we had supported the Olympic ideal and the idea of bringing the Games to Salt Lake City.

Many other news organizations had let their staffers run. Some had not. Was there a conflict for journalists whose news organizations were covering the story? On our staff, some favored running, some did not. We got a couple of calls from other reporters writing about the issue.

A Wall Street Journal reporter called to inquire how we'd handled the ethical question. "About the same way The Wall Street Journal did," we said. "How's that again?" he said. So we pointed out that Wall Street Journal reporters had been authorized to run with the flame at earlier Games in Nagano and Atlanta.

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Finally, we decided that running posed no conflict. Our coverage of the Games would not be compromised.

So, last week, I was poised in a small shuttle bus, waiting my turn to be dropped off and carry the flame. My fellow relay runners included a three-time down-hill Olympic woman skier, a woman bobsledder contending for a gold medal, the youthful-looking president of Sports Illustrated, who looked like he could have run the entire 13,500 miles by himself, and a lean, lithe woman TV anchor.

They all seemed depressingly athletic.

On an earlier form asking whether I would "walk," "brisk walk," or "run," I'd opted for "brisk walk."

But looking at the competition, I quickly upgraded to "run." I was even surer about this as I prepared to leave the bus and spied the crowds along the route. There were folks waving American flags and cheering lustily. There were children holding dogs swathed in red, white, and blue neckerchiefs. There were construction workers holding "God Bless America" banners.

These people, who later wanted to touch the torch and the runners and be photographed with them, deserved nothing less from me than a good brisk run, with torch held high.

Hundreds had come to be with the torch for a few fleeting seconds, and perhaps be moved by the hope and nobility and unity symbolized in its flame. As the music from the bus turned from "Star Wars" to the "Olympic March," it was a scene to bring tears to the eyes. And it did.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.