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Not flash but dash: Anne plays key Olympic role

Spare a thought for Princess Anne.

While the London Olympics will showcase a whole new generation of British royals, it's easy to overlook the 61-year-old daughter of Queen Elizabeth II. But with so many eyes on the glamorous Kate, also known as the Duchess of Cambridge, her earnest husband Prince William and the ever-so-eligible Prince Harry, it's easy to forget that Anne is part of the reason London has the Olympics in the first place.

Even her daughter, Zara Phillips, who earned a spot on Britain's Olympic team, seems destined to upstage Anne in the attention sweepstakes.

"She is one of the great unsung heroes of this whole process," Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson said in May, just before Anne took possession of the Olympic flame in Greece.

As president of the British Olympic committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee, Anne was instrumental in helping London win the bid in 2005. She later brought her experience as an Olympic equestrian to the 30-member London organizing committee.

Organizing committee chair Sebastian Coe has praised her stamina, joking at one point that she'd have usually opened three hospitals by the time she showed up for the average board meeting at midday.

"Crucially, she sees the world through the eyes of a competitor," he said.

Anne competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She remembers that experience fondly, even though she did fall off her horse, Goodwill, to the horror of her family, who had come to Canada to watch.

That was back in another era, when Olympic athletes were still amateurs. Being an Olympian has changed much since then. In a BBC interview, Anne expressed sympathy for British athletes at the London games, as they will be under much more hometown scrutiny.

"I would have found it really difficult, I suspect, to do it on a home patch — much easier to have done it elsewhere," she told the BBC. "I'd hate to be doing it now — that's all I can tell you!"

Anne knows this firsthand. Her daughter, Zara, faces not only the scrutiny of being a British Olympian competing on home turf, but also that of being a member of the royal family.

Phillips follows not only in the footsteps of her mother, but of her father as well. Anne's first husband, Capt. Mark Phillips fared better than Anne in the games, winning a team gold at Munich in 1972 and silver in Seoul 16 years later. He is now a top coach for the U.S. equestrian team.

Being royal and very public has always sat uneasily with Anne. She is also known to speak her mind — even in extreme situations, such as an attempted kidnapping attempt against her in 1974. Princess Anne once told interviewer Michael Parkinson that the assailant opened the car door and told her to come with him.

"I said I didn't think I wanted to go," she said. "I was scrupulously polite. I thought, hmph, silly to be too rude at that stage."

Anne declined her mother's offer of royal titles for her two children — the only two of the queen's grandchildren not to have titles. She divorced Phillips in 1992, and remarried outside the Church of England to Timothy Laurence later that year.

Unpretentious and businesslike, Britain's powerful tabloids mock Anne's clothing choices when they notice her at all. She's the patron of over 200 organizations, and carries out some 500 royal engagements a year.

But there's one problem with being a background player: No one can be quite certain what exactly you have done, so her effectiveness is hard to judge, said Ellis Cashmore, a professor of media culture and sport at Staffordshire University. However, since Anne is not a "brand name" — or even a big star in royal circles — her involvement with so many causes suggests she at least has a sense of Olympic spirit.

"I don't think she's been brought in for the royal seal of approval," he said. "This isn't Wills or Kate or even Charles."

One of her jobs this year included taking part in the ceremonies to hand over the Olympic flame from Greece to Britain. She took possession of the fire in Athens, but once she landed in Cornwall, in southwestern England, she rather quickly handed the flame to soccer star David Beckham, who lit a celebratory cauldron

The crowd went wild as Beckham held the flame high.

Anne stood to the side.

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Danica Kirka can be reached at http://twitter.com/DanicaKirka