A Hero Steps Forward

It took the courage and determination of a gravely wounded soldier to remind us what the Olympic Torch relay should really be about.

Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson battled for 27 painful and exhausting minutes yesterday to carry the torch 300 metres.

After accusations that the relay was becoming a circus for minor celebrities and corporate sponsors, here was a real hero to win the crowd’s heart.

Few who saw Ben – the most severely wounded soldier to survive the fighting in Afghanistan – could fail to have been stirred as he walked slowly by the cenotaph in his home town of Doncaster.

Schoolchildren shouted ‘Go Ben’, fellow soldiers walked behind in battle dress and watching mothers sobbed. They were 15 deep on the pavement and every vantage point was taken.

For Ben, every step was a triumph of mind over matter – a victory for human endurance and a stirring example of what the Olympic spirit should embody.

His inspiring walk came after revelations earlier this month (June)  that some of the coveted places on the relay had been handed out by sponsors to their own staff.

Coca-Cola, Samsung and Adidas have distributed the positions to everyone from marketing executives to IT workers.

Last month, Will.i.am, US star of BBC talent show the Voice, trotted the Torch through Taunton – with which he has no connection.

Ben, 27, lost both his legs, broke his back, hips and ribs and was brain damaged when a Taliban mine exploded in 2006. He defied the odds to live – let alone take part in the Olympic torch relay.

He was determined to do it on his new prosthetic legs, scoffing at the offer to be pushed in a wheelchair or use crutches. All the sweat and tears were worthwhile by the time he passed on the flame to the next bearer.

‘I am very proud,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise how much support I had, I was amazed.’

His mother Diane said: ‘I cried from start to finish. People were shouting and cheering. I couldn’t believe so many had turned out.’

‘It’s the proudest moment of my life,’ said his mother, kissing him at the handover point. ‘We knew Ben would complete the route. He’s so determined.’

L/Bdr Parkinson has come a long way since suffering close to 40 injuries in the explosion in Helmand Province and spending three months unconscious in military hospital.

He had to learn to walk on prosthetic legs and undergo major surgery to fix his shattered spine and teach himself to talk once more.

He was also recovering from grievous damage to his skull, pelvis, hands, spleen and ribcage.

His mother added: ‘The whole purpose of this was to show everyone what he can do.

‘It’s been such a spur for him, he’s had to work so hard. He’s had this practice torch made and he’s been pounding the streets

‘He’s doing brilliantly. Even a few months ago we didn’t know if he’d be able to do it without crutches but he’s cracked it and he’s been doing about 500m up and down the area.

‘This town has been such a wonderful place for Ben. Whatever he does, Doncaster’s behind him.

‘It’s so important to Ben because this is his chance to prove what he can do, to thank everybody in Doncaster because he’s had such fantastic support locally.’

Speaking after he handed over the flame, which he carried in a white sling around his neck, the exhausted but grinning 27-year-old said: ‘It was nothing – just another walk.

‘I am very proud. All these people helped me along.’

Ben was accompanied by 25 colleagues from 7 Para Royal Horse Artillery and his commanding officer Major David Walker said: ‘My men would have crawled over broken glass to be here today to show Ben our support.

‘Everyone in the regiment is tremendously proud of the progress that he’s made against incredible adversity.

‘We’re immensely proud of the physical and mental courage he shows in overcoming major injuries. It’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.

‘We’re here to support Ben. The regiment is a wider family than just its serving members. We are here to show Ben that he is still part of that family.’

Sergeant Adam Colin, who served with L/Bdr Parkinson for many years, including in Afghanistan, added: ‘We’re just here to show our support to Ben – cheer him on and show how fantastically well he’s done and is doing.

‘We’re very, very proud of him so we’re here to give our big support to him and just let him know we’ll always be there for him.’

People of all ages turned out in the beaming sunshine to cheer L/Bdr Parkinson on, with schoolchildren chanting ‘Come on, Ben’, while others waved flags, whistled and cheered as he passed by.

L/Bdr Parkinson celebrated afterwards with family and close friends at his home in Doncaster.

A sign at displayed outside a pub along the route read: ‘Thank you Ben, you make us proud’ and onlookers waved Union flags enthusiastically as he passed.

His physio Robert ‘Shep’ Shepherd said they had practised the walk about six times in preparation, and admitted it was a mammoth task.

He said: ‘He has just completed an incredible feat.

‘For Ben, this isn’t the same as walking the distance as someone else.

‘It’s the equivalent to walking with three times the amount of his weight on his back.

‘We started training about seven weeks ago, and Ben does physio about 15 hours a week.

‘I’m so proud of him.’

Earlier, TV personality Chris Kamara earlier carried the torch on the relay leg between Warmsworth and Doncaster.

Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium was the starting point for day 39 of the relay as the flame travelled from Sheffield to Cleethorpes in the hands of 130 torchbearers.

Last night Olympic gold medallist Lord Coe returned to his home city of Sheffield to carry the Olympic flame.

Once again in his career he felt the joy of the crowds as the 1,500m double gold medallist and chairman of the London 2012 organising committee completed his turn at a 300m leg through the city centre.

He spoke affectionately about his Sheffield, which he said was ‘very close to his heart’, as people gathered to take photos of him after he was dropped off by the relay bus.

Lord Coe said: ‘I’m just very, very flattered, very honoured. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be in the world than here with this torch today in Sheffield.

‘Just having sat on the coach with 20 extraordinary people all telling their own personal stories of why they got nominated and some of the things they’ve done and been through – it’s just extraordinary.’

With just 31 days to go until the start of the Games, the chairman was delighted to take time out of his schedule to take part in the relay.

He continued: ‘To me personally this is a massive day because it’s the city I was brought up in.

Everything that really mattered in my athletics career took place in this city.

‘My coaches, my local athletics club, my inspiration to even join the athletics club was from two competitors in this city – John and Sheila Sherwood, who won medals in the 1968 Olympic Games.

‘This is a city which is very close to my heart.’

As he waited for his turn to carry the torch, one well-wisher said, ‘Thanks for doing all this for us’.

Earlier in the day, Lord Coe accompanied the flame when it visited patients at Sheffield Children’s Hospital in a lantern, joined by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

He also made a surprise visit to his former secondary school Tapton Secondary School in Ranmoor, where he joined in with celebrations for sports day.

He took along his old PE teacher, John O’Keeffe, 73, who helped him get where he is today.

Headteacher David Bowes described the visit as a ‘great honour’.

Sebastian Coe won four Olympic medals, including the 1500m gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984. He also set eight outdoor and three indoor world records in middle distance track events.

Thousands of people greeted the flame on its way into the city at a community event in Hillsborough Park, while thousands more gathered for a celebration event in the city centre.

Yesterday the torch started day 38 of its journey round the UK in Leeds, where it was carried by Steven Tomlinson, the 14-year-old son of late inspirational fundraiser Jane Tomlinson.

His mother, who died from cancer in 2007 at the age of 43, inspired thousands of people as she defied experts and spent seven years raising more than £1.8 million in a series of endurance challenges.

Leeds City Council estimated 200,000 people came out to see the torch in its three days in the city, which had ‘seen nothing like it’.
Source: Emma Clark



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