‘How a torch changed my life’

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Graeme Buxton is amazed how volunteering for an Olympic torch relay in Queenstown in 2000 changed his life. Over a beer on the Gold Coast, he discusses what happened next with Philip Chandler– a torchbearer himself, that day.

Imagine making a career out of organising people to run around with a torch or a baton.

That – plus a few other things like Formula 1 motor racing management – has been the path ex-Queenstowner Graeme Buxton has trodden for the past 18 years.

Most recently, he had a major role with the round-Australia Queen’s Baton Relay leading up to this month’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

His career effectively started in Queenstown, when he signed up to volunteer for the Sydney Olympic Torch Relay when it passed through the resort on June 5, 2000.

“I got up that morning to help out, thinking it was for only one day, and that just kind of changed my life, really.”

After spending the day installing technology gear into support vehicles, “my boss turned around and said, ‘well, we actually need someone on the road for the rest of the New Zealand leg’.

“They then took off back to Australia and a couple of weeks later I got offered a job with the rest of the Australian relay.”

For three months, he was responsible for coordinating all accommodation, air travel and catering for a crew of 150.

After the Olympics, where he was an assistant venue manager, he was media and crew operations coordinator for the Paralympic Games Torch Relay.

Before being whisked away to join the first relay, Buxton had been working in Queenstown again after originally arriving in 1986 from his native Wellington.

He started as a trainee manager, initially for Skyline Queenstown, with roles like commis chef and gondola operator, then for the brand-new THC hotel, now Novotel.

He returned to the North Island in ’89, filling event management roles for the likes of the 1992 America’s Cup yachting challenge and the Mobil Wellington Street Race, returning in ’98, where he was working for Real Journeys when he got the Olympic Torch Relay call-up.

After the Sydney Olympics he returned to Queenstown as event director for his own company.

He also opened a tourism business, Queenstown Heli-Hikes, taking people hiking up Cecil Peak, before choppering them off, but says he was probably years ahead of his time.

The 51-year-old left town again in 2005 and was advance event coordinator for the 2006 Asian Games Torch Relay, taking in 21 cities in Asia and the Middle East in the lead-up to the Games in Qatar. Buxton was also involved in the 2008 Olympic Games Torch Relay, which toured China over 100 days before the event in Beijing.

He also worked briefly on the 2009 Chinese New Year Parade in Sydney and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Torch Relay, in Canada.

From 2010 to 2015 he was based in Abu Dhabi, working as transport, then site manager, for the United Arab Emirates’ annual Formula 1 motor races.

Over the past year he’s been tour services specialist for the Commonwealth Games’ Queen’s Baton Relay around Australia, covering 88 cities over 100 days.

Buxton says the buzz he gets from events is “being in charge of delivering things that happen on time”.

“Certain parts have to be performed at certain times. It’s like building a building except the building just goes away – that’s what I’ve learnt the most out of this business.” He’s also learnt to adjust to the fickle nature of work.

“There’s a term in the industry, the same as in the film industry – you’re either living on champagne or two-minute noodles.

“There’ll sometimes be nothing for three months so I’ll just sit on an island in Thailand and live as cheaply as possible and wait for the next job to come up.”

Though now ensconced on the Gold Coast, Buxton says Queenstown is “probably still the most special place in my life.

“I’d like to go back, for sure – I’ve always wanted to buy an apartment there and be part of the town.”

Perhaps he could help organise another relay here.

scoop@scene.co.nz