The Olympic torch that spent years locked up at the Asheville Police Department
A cyclist had a treasured memento stolen from his home. Investigators found it quickly. But it took him a long time to get it back.
The Olympics! They’re almost over at this point, and as usual, they’ve been controversial. So, let’s look at something completely uncontroversial: The torch relay!
So, care to explain how it started?
Well, the torch relay started at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was, um, a Nazi idea.
(closes computer for a while)
For whatever reason, though, the relay became a part of modern Olympic tradition, which led to what I can only consider to be its most seminal moment. In 1956, as the torch was being carried through Australia, a runner in Sydney got his chance to run a leg of the relay. The police, without questioning the man’s identity, escorted him to the stage, where he presented the torch to the mayor. According to one telling, things immediately went downhill:
At that point, the mayor realized something was wrong. The handle of the torch was sticky because the silver paint on it hadn't dried. Then someone whispered in the mayor's ear, "That's not the torch."
Suddenly the mayor realized what he was holding. Held proudly in his hand was not the majestic Olympic flame. Instead he was gripping a wooden chair leg topped by a plum pudding can inside of which a pair of kerosene-soaked underwear was burning with a greasy flame.
The actual runner with the actual Olympic flame showed up a few minutes later. The fake runner was actually a college student who was protesting the relay’s Nazi origins. He was greeted back at his university with a hero’s welcome.
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So, yes, the torch relay has the capacity to be both extremely problematic and extremely hilarious. Now, though, it’s been greeted in many places with a combination of fanfare and reverence. Last year, I talked to my former co-worker Larry Sprinkle, the legendary WCNC-TV weatherman, about his experience carrying the torch through Charlotte before the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. Larry’s a kind and silly guy, but he spoke about the torch in a hushed tone. “To me, it’s kind of sacred,” he said. Even after 20 years, it gives off a faint odor of butane. “You can still smell it,” he told me.
The last time the torch relay came to North Carolina was in 2002, when it briefly veered up into Charlotte. It passed through western North Carolina in 1984 before the Los Angeles games. But most people remember the relay from the 1996 Atlanta games. That’s when the Olympic flame spent the better part of four days here, visiting Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte, and then passed through Hendersonville and Cherokee. Hundreds of people got the chance to carry it, mostly because of the work they’d done in their communities.
In all, thousands of people get to carry the flame, which means there are thousands of torches out there. Each carrier has the chance to buy the one they carried for a few hundred bucks, and many do. Sprinkle said he keeps his wrapped up. Others have simply put them on their mantels. At least one woman in Concord kept hers behind a laundry basket.
There’s one, though, that had a less than noble stay in North Carolina. For the better part of seven years, an Olympic torch sat in an evidence locker in Asheville.
Grand Torch Larceny
So, this story’s not quite worth of an episode of Serial, but as true crime goes, it’s fairly unusual. Back in 2012, Andrew Crater was moving into a new apartment. Crater was a nationally-ranked cyclist who, at the time, ran a business that sold yoga mats. While he was moving in, the guy who had been leasing the apartment was moving out. “He took more than he should have,” Crater told me.
Crater had hoped, in the early ‘90s, to make the Olympic cycling team. He had a real shot and some solid credentials—over his racing career, he’d won more than 250 races—but he realized that he didn’t have the right pedigree to get selected. Instead, he was selected to take the Olympic flame from Greensboro to Winston-Salem. By bike.
USA Cycling gave Crater a specialized bike with a torch mount on the back, and he and another rider basically took turns hauling it across the Piedmont. Crater says he thinks his leg was the longest leg of the relay (most runners only carried the flame for about a half-mile). Afterward, he took the torch and put it on display in his home.
Crater later moved from Greensboro to Asheville to train on the steep mountain slopes. Not long after the move, he came home and discovered that some of his stuff was missing. “I noticed a bicycle was gone first,” he says. “Then I was like, ‘Oh man, my torch is gone.’” So, Crater started calling pawn shops, and discovered that Alan’s Jewelry and Pawn had paid $200 for it. He called police, who then immediately figured out who’d taken it: a man named Brian McDonald, who’d had prior larceny convictions. He was the man who was moving out while Crater was moving in.
Police quickly recovered the torch, and told the Asheville Citizen-Times that Crater would get it back soon. That was in January 2012.
According to state records, McDonald was convicted of larceny two months after that, in March.
Then… Crater just didn’t get his torch back.
He’s not sure why. Something procedural with the legal system, he thinks. But for almost 7 1/2 years, his torch sat in an evidence locker in Asheville. It was only 2 1/2 years ago, after he and his wife had moved to Greenville, South Carolina, that he finally got it back. Late yesterday, after talking to Crater, I contacted the City of Asheville to find out what took so long. They’ll get back to me, a spokeswoman said.
Crater’s happy to have the torch back in his home. “It’s a conversation piece,” he said, although he admits that he doesn’t have too many conversations about it anymore. He’d much rather talk about the bicycling club he helps with in Greenville, along with suprabars.com, the energy bar business he runs. Still, though, he is proud enough to list his torch-carrying experience on his resume.
Crater told the police that his torch was valued at $15,000, but admitted he set the price that high because of its sentimental value. Most of the ones on eBay go for a couple thousand dollars. Still, torches can end up in some strange situations. Just this week, some American figure skaters found out that they’re getting torches in place of medals at the Beijing games while Olympic officials try to sort out a Russian doping scandal. Sure, some silver or gold would be cool, but you can’t light a medal on fire and run around with it.