He carries Olympic torch to fight anti-Semitism

San Franciscan Vladimir Prikupets has what one might call an obsession of Olympic proportions.

For the third time, the white-haired, ruddy-cheeked emigre joined the Olympic relay carrying a torch for four blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The June 16 event was just one leg of the relay that will take the torch around the world before ending in Athens, the site of this summer’s Olympic games.

Why has the 71-year-old carried the torch for three different Olympic games?

Prikupets admits it’s an obsession. But his motive for bearing the torch says it all. He did it this year “for peace, against fascism, terrorism, banditism and anti-Semitism,” and he is having these words inscribed on the torch he carried.

He paid in advance to keep his torch, which the Olympics committee permits. Before he left the relay, he lit the torch of the next runner.

His two previous torches are each adorned with plaques that have a message inscribed.

The golden torch he carried in 1984 has several plaques on it. One inscription is in memory of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Another is for the Israeli athletes killed in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Another is for those Jews who are in the Soviet Union.

In 2002, he carried a bronze and copper torch in the relay before the Salt Lake City games, and inscribed it with a plaque that says: “This torch was carried by Vladimir Prikupets against terrorism, banditism, anti-Semitism in the USA, Israel, Russia and world.”

The third torch that he carried last week is a sleek, futuristic, silver bullet-like shape, resembling sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight.”

When asked why the message on that one will almost replicate that of 2002, he responded that he puts what’s on his mind at the time, and the world hadn’t changed much since then.

“Only the Iraq war,” he said in heavily accented English.

The first time he carried the torch was before the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

In 1984, the torch cost $3,000 because Olympic Games Commissioner Peter Ueberroth wanted the Olympics to make a profit. This year and two years ago, the cost was $400.

Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, Prikupets’ family was one of the first Russian Jewish families to settle in San Francisco. He came to the United States in 1975 with his wife and daughter. A civil engineer by trade, he also had a passion for photography, and he later worked for Russian newspapers.

A major sports fan, he specialized in sports photography, which landed him journalists’ credentials to cover his first Olympic games in 1980, in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The atmosphere there got him hooked.

“The Olympics are the capital of sports,” he said. “You have everything, and it’s all the best. And there are so many people, from all over the world. In three weeks, you can see the best of sports, swimming, soccer, tennis, everything in one place.”

Prikupets has since been to 10 Olympic games, and he rattles them off his fingers in no particular order: Lake Placid, Los Angeles, Calgary, Seoul, Nagano, Atlanta, Sydney, Barcelona, Salt Lake City, Lillehammer. He was in Greece in March and checked up on the preparations going on in Athens. He was also in Beijing recently — though he and his wife went because they had always wanted to visit China — but while there, he checked up on the preparations for the 2008 games.

Health permitting, he plans to go to Turin, Italy, in 2006 and Beijing in 2008. Pulling down the neckline of his bright blue Olympic relay T-shirt to show the bright red scar on his chest, he said “Five bypasses!”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."