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Olympic torch becomes cultural happening in UK

Sgt. Richard Clement plowed up Dickson Road on Friday, the Olympic torch attached to the side of his wheelchair, flame burning despite pouring rain.

The crowd clapped solemnly, water slapping against their hands, cheering on a soldier who had stepped on a mine in Afghanistan and changed his life forever, losing his legs.

He didn't seem to mind the drenching - or the fact that his section of the torch relay was all uphill - but he did want everyone to think about other service people, some far, far way.

"I just want everyone to be a bit proud of the forces and the job they do really," he said. "I'm carrying it for all the troops that are out there."

Scenes like this have made the torch relay an event across the length of Britain, with huge crowds coming out to meet it wherever it goes. Spectators have stood in the rain and wind, in doorways and on sidewalks, along country lanes and beside superhighways, just hoping for a glimpse of a lone runner, torch in hand, flame held high.

The torch is winding its way to every corner of the country ahead of its showcase moment at the July 27 Opening Ceremony. On Friday, it was halfway through its 70-day journey, a route which will see it travel within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of 95 percent of the British population.

It's been on horseback. It's traveled on a balloon. It's been on boats, planes, trains. It's been carried by Olympians and Paralympians, singers and dancers, police officers and firefighters. The queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips, has shared the honor with James Winter, a 40-year-old milkman from Chard who was nominated for delivering, no matter the weather.

If the Beijing relay set up the 2008 Summer Games as China's coming-out party on an international stage, London's relay is setting up Britain as the community Olympics - maybe not the biggest and most spectacular, but one that will be welcoming - and certainly well attended.

The English are normally too inhibited and squeamish to make a big fuss about anything - except sport, Kate Fox, the author of "Watching the English," wrote in a British Airways survey on the games.

"Big sporting events such as the London 2012 games provide an antidote ... an excuse to shed some of our inhibitions and be a bit more emotive or demonstrative," she said.

Organizers of the London Olympics assumed that the world would be excited about the London Games. But they were worried about what people in Britain would think - particularly given that Brits are often a cynical lot and proud of it, thank you. This was particularly important given that the bill to taxpayers for 9.3 billion pounds ($14.7 billion) to host the event that comes at a time of economic austerity. People wondered whether the money was well spent.

There's also the fact that so much activity is focused on Olympic Park in London. There had to be some sense that other parts of the country were involved - that the Olympics also belonged to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"I don't think I'll ever see it again," said Amanda Poole, 38, who came to see the torch in seaside resort of Blackpool in northwestern England with her daughter, Nastassja, 8, and her husband, Steve. "Even though it's raining and windy, it just adds to the atmosphere."

All over the country, people have been touched by the torch. In one central England city, Worcester, 70,000 people - out of a population of 93,300 - turned up for the celebratory lighting of the flame cauldron. The numbers are already making city planners further along the route think twice.

Garrett Emmerson, a senior official with Transport for London, told The Associated Press that plans for the torch's arrival in London had to be reconsidered after seeing its reception elsewhere. Britain has had to pour more money into crowd-control plans for London during the Olympics - after it acknowledged that it underestimated the crowds that would turn out to see the flame.

Even the sponsors have been surprised and moved by the turnouts and torchbearers like Clement. Tanya Veingard, a communications official for sponsor, Lloyds, said that she'd seen crowds materialize from nowhere. In one small Scottish village, Drumnadrochit, people stood 10 deep.

"I thought, where did all these people come from?" she said.

Whether they are coming just because it is a local happening, or because people are moved by the fairy dust of the games, it's not really clear. A torch leg is a hoo-hah that features sponsor buses and music, streamers and tambourines, cheerleaders, cameras and the center of it all, the flame.

So bad was the weather in Blackpool that an evening celebration had to be moved indoors and the whole route changed only a few hours before to move it away from the ocean, which was churning in white caps. But everyone seemed to find the torch anyway.

Clement, 32, the Afghan veteran, was surrounded by photographers as he got off the bus that brought him to the bottom of the hill. Beaming, he picked up the flame, and slowly, drinking in every moment, he wheeled his way up.

The crowd walked alongside until he reached the top, kids running past the shopfronts.

And it rained. So what.