Montrealer who lit 1976 Olympic cauldron describes 'awesome' experience

Stéphane Préfontaine was 15 when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the Montreal Games. He recounts the experience 40 years later.

Stéphane Préfontaine was 15 when he carried torch, lit cauldron

Sandra Henderson and Stéphane Préfontaine were teenagers (16 and 15, respectively) when they were chosen to light the Olympic cauldron. Préfontaine said it took longer than he'd anticipated for the cauldron to ignite but once it did, the crowd went wild. (© 1976 / Comité International Olympique (CIO) - All rights reserved)

While he was running through Montreal's Olympic Stadium, 73,000 people cheering him on as he moved toward the cauldron, the only thing Stéphane Préfontaine desperately wanted was to not mess up.

Then he and Sandra Henderson, his running partner, got to the cauldron, went to light it — nothing.

"We got really nervous for a couple of seconds. We didn't know what was going on," he said.

They waited there with thousands of eyes on them for what felt like eternity.  

"And then the whole thing lit, people cheered, it was overwhelming," he said.

A surprise honour

Préfontaine first fell in love with track while attending a summer sports camp in Maine as an 8-year-old boy.

At the end of the camp, they held a mini-Olympics and he cleaned up.

By the time he was 15-years-old, Préfontaine was a sprinter specializing in the 200 and 400 metres and dreaming of competing in the Olympics.

One day his track team, based out of Collège Brébeuf, received a visit from Olympic organizers looking for torch relay participants. Préfontaine was selected and paired up with Henderson, a runner from Toronto.

"The organizers were looking for youth because they wanted to show Canada was a young, forward-looking country," he said.

Préfontaine and Henderson did their first practice run at 5 a.m. the day of the ceremony. (Canadian Press)

The pair practised running side by side around a track but were never told what role they would have in the ceremonies. All they knew was that they would possibly be in the stadium, or part of another event on Mount Royal.

They stayed in a hotel the night before the ceremony. The morning of July 17, 1976, Préfontaine was woken up at 5 a.m. and brought to the stadium where he and Henderson had their first and only rehearsal of the route they would run to the cauldron.

An amazing moment

Later that afternoon, they took their positions outside the stadium and waited for the torch runners to arrive.

"There were so many people outside the stadium. They knew something was happening but they didn't know what," he said.

They ran with the torch through a huge garage door and into the stadium. As they ran, spectators slowly started to notice their arrival, creating a wave of cheers that followed them until they hit the track.

"Everyone could see us and there was an explosion of sound. It was very impressive," he said.

Sandra Henderson and Stéphane Préfontaine were teenagers (16 and 15, respectively) when they were chosen to light the Olympic cauldron at the 1976 Olympics. 1:29

They were trying to stay stone-faced and focused, but were slowed down by excited athletes stepping onto the track to take pictures.

Once the delay at lighting the cauldron was over, Préfontaine felt all the stress and pressure evaporate and tried to take everything in.

"That whole moment was very emotional," he said.
Stéphane Préfontaine is now the president of Préfontaine Capital Inc., an independent investment advisory firm. (Submitted by Stéphane Préfontaine)

After their official jobs were done, the two runners were given passes to any event they wanted to see.

Préfontaine went to as many athletic events as he could. He also met then prime minister Pierre Trudeau and attended a gymnastics event with him. He was chauffeured to the Montreal Forum in a private limousine.

Now the president of an independent investment advisory firm, Préfontaine retired from running due to an injury when he was still a teenager.

So while his dream of running in the Games never panned out, he still holds a special place in Olympic history.

"It was awesome," he said.