Olympic flame won't be set fully free

Spectators stand on cement barriers to take souvenir photos of the Olympic cauldron Sunday February 14, 2010 at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

VANCOUVER - Set free the flame.

That's becoming the rallying cry of Vancouver Games spectators who were hoping to bask in the warmth of the Olympic cauldron but are instead being left cold by the fact they can't get anywhere near it.

The four steel pillars cradling the cauldron stand 10 metres high on a waterfront plaza adjacent to the broadcast centre. The majestic mountains of Vancouver's North Shore rise in the background.

And out front? A chain-link fence.

The spectacular, icicle-like cauldron is smack inside a security zone around a Games venue.

The fencing has turned the poignant symbol of the Olympic ideals of peace and inspiration into a zoo exhibit.

A volunteer sat on a lifeguard's chair at a corner Sunday, bellowing directions to the cauldron through a bullhorn.

Thousands obliged, shuffling slowly along the barrier, trying to peer through its steel rings or hoist their children onto their shoulders for a better look.

Organizers have removed some of the fence dressing allowing for more places to see, but fans don't want them to stop there.

On Sunday morning, one man yelled out: “Mr. Premier, tear down this fence!” – a reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 speech that challenged the Soviet Union to take down the Berlin Wall. The line prompted laughter from the crowd.

Taking down the fence altogether won't be an option, said Renee Smith-Valade, vice-president of communications for the Vancouver organizing committee, but some changes are being considered.

"I strongly doubt the security perimeter will be opened, given the sensitivity of the compound that it's in for the International Broadcast Centre and the Main Media Centre," she said.

"The goal is to make it so that at least people can take a picture and enjoy it through a photograph."

The fencing was set up at the discretion of the RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit, which was in charge of determining security perimeters for the Games. It's likely the barriers would have been there with or without the cauldron on the plaza.

One officer patrolling the melee on Sunday said he thought organizers had perhaps underestimated the number of people who would try to see the flame, joking that while the fence was there for security reasons, there was no doubt it was "of-fence-ive."

A spokesperson for the ISU said the concerns raised about the visibility issue was under discussion with Olympic organizers.

"We take seriously the responsibility of preserving the security and integrity of the Olympic cauldron, which is an important symbol of the Olympics," said Corp. Caroline Letang.

Olympic cauldrons are rarely directly accessible to fans, usually burning in or atop a stadium for the duration of the Games.

"There is a security issue and a safety issue, too," said Mark Adams, a spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee, who said the issue of Vancouver's cauldron was not raised at a Sunday morning meeting with Vancouver officials.

Vancouver organizers had to build an external cauldron because the fabric roof of B.C. Place stadium couldn't withstand the heat from one lit during the opening ceremonies, and IOC protocol dictates that the flame remain lit for the entire Games.

The 2010 cauldron sits in a plaza named for Jack Poole, the chairman of the board of directors for the 2010 Olympic organizing committee, who passed away in October, the day before the flame was lit in Greece.

It will remain on the Vancouver waterfront after the Games are over.

Blue-and-green Olympic bunting fabric that had been covering the fence on Saturday was taken down Sunday, but the fence remained.

The imprisoned cauldron is still not sitting well with fans.

Viktor Davare, a native of Switzerland who now lives in the Vancouver Island community of Courtenay, brought his 14-year-old daughter Nadia to see the flame. They were underwhelmed.

“Looking through a fence, it’s just a sad feeling,” he said.

“I think it’s terrible…. It’s just horrible” said Nadia. “It’s like your own country that’s hosting it and you should be able to go see the flame and be a part of it.”

Her father said he had expected his daughter would be able to stand “in the same foot steps” of Wayne Gretzky, who lit the cauldron Friday night.

“How close do you ever get a chance to do that in a special place like this, but now…,” he said, not finishing the sentence.

Smith-Valade told reporters that safety is a concern, and organizers don't want people to get hurt going too close to the cauldron.

Yet, at one point Sunday morning, people on the outside of the fence could see Games volunteer staff posing by the flame and even leaning against one of the four pillars that support the raised cauldron.

“Look at that. So, they can do it and we can’t?” said Nancy Ross of nearby Richmond, B.C.

Organizers said they are exploring options that won't compromise security but will allow for a better view.

"We understand that people would like to get close and they would like to see it unobstructed so we'll look to see what we can do," said Smith-Valade.

Others in the crowd Sunday dismissed concerns of Games organizers that the fence was necessary for security reasons.

“There’s security right here, police right here,” said Dave Patterson of suburban North Delta, pointing at the police who were on the other side of the fence.

“I don’t understand why we need a 10-foot fence with concrete abutments to protect the Olympic flame, which is supposed to be about peace, harmony, global partnerships and all that great stuff.”