I hate to douse the Olympic flame before it's lit, but this worldwide torch relay really should go the way of the pay phone. Like the Whig Party, the torch relay had its day -- and night, I suppose -- and now it's time to move on.

Oh, sure, we're told the flame relay is a living, symbolic embodiment of the Olympic spirit, but, hey, Keith Richards is a living, symbolic embodiment of the spirit of rock 'n' roll, and you don't see him rolling out of bed midday to rush out onto the streets and run to glory.

The torch, carried about 400 meters at a time by each bearer, is going through 34 cities in 27 nations, leading up to the Summer Games that begin Aug. 13.

During its U.S. journey last week, the torch went from Los Angeles to St. Louis to Atlanta to New York. It arrived at each locale on time, owing to the fact that no Delta flights were involved.

(The day the flame passed through L.A., a friend called and asked if I was going to go see it. What is he, bonkers? Traffic is so bad here, it takes me 45 minutes just to pull out of my driveway. Plus, I can see Sylvester Stallone running down Sunset Boulevard any day training for "Rocky VI." Besides, I heard that when the torch reached Beverly Hills, Roseanne blew out the flame.)

There are now more torchbearers than there are athletes in the Games. This calls to mind that, at certain TGI Fridays, there are more waitresses than there are customers.

Q. What happens if someone drops the torch?

A. You buy another one at Home Depot.

To become a torch runner, you can be nominated by family or friends or you are picked by local or Olympic officials. Runners can then purchase their torch for about $350; similarly, visitors to Times Square often take home their own porn literature.

(I volunteered to be a torch runner in 1996, but my living room, bedroom and kitchen were not part of the relay route.)

True story: At the first Olympiad in ancient Greece in 776 B.C., the commencing of the torch relay was held up for 12 days because no one knew how to start a fire.

These days, the torch relay has no practical purpose other than to provide local newscasts with a 15-second clip leading into commercial -- though, to be honest, I'm surprised NBC doesn't use the whole exercise to solve its Thursday-night-at-8:30 programming hole.

(By the way, did you take a gander at those promos during the NBA Finals for ABC's fall lineup? Who's programming that network, Paris Hilton's half-sister? Have you ever seen a more stench-filled sinkhole of apocalyptic neo-reality-show slime? Their entire prime-time schedule appears to revolve around desperate wives, swapping wives, half-dressed wives, adulterous wives, wandering wives and Mark Cuban. And the FCC's targeting Howard Stern? ABC's not a broadcast network, it's a venereal disease.)

Don't get me wrong -- torch relays are nice, but, frankly, I prefer a crackling gas fireplace.

Moreover, it's an expensive proposition -- the cost of this year's relay will exceed $50 million, or about twice the price of Dennis Rodman's last house party -- and it's a logistical nightmare at every turn.

I don't get it.

When you start the Indianapolis 500, someone says, "Gentlemen, start your engines," and you're under way. When you start a poker tournament, someone says, "Shuffle up and deal," and you're under way. When you start a bowling match, someone says, "Where's my Bud Light?" and you're under way.

But when you want to start an Olympic Games, 11,000 people or so have to carry a torch 46,800 miles over 35 days and several continents and then -- after NBC holds it for a few hours to add music and graphics -- you're underway.

This all leads, of course, to the actual lighting of the Olympic flame at the Opening Ceremonies, which this year will be held at a construction site in downtown Athens at the future home of the Olympic Stadium.

Ask The Slouch

Q. I've heard those disturbing stories that Britney Spears is actually lip-syncing at her concerts. Do you think there is anything like this going on in the world of sports broadcasting? (Ken Vehe; Deerfield, Ill.)

A. Now that you mention it, I'm going to take a good, hard look at Van Earl Wright.

Q. Which of the following jobs is more difficult to be fired from -- secretary of defense, director of the CIA or head football coach at Colorado? (Nick Strasser; Cherry Hill, N.J.)

A. I assume this is a rhetorical question.

Q. Why don't the umpires ever clean off home plate anymore? (Gary Heldt; Bay Village, Ohio)

A. That umpire union's so powerful, I'm surprised they don't get a shoeshine between innings.

Q. My wife is always asking me, so I thought I would ask you: How do you live with yourself? (Patrick Davalos; Alexandria)

A. I sleep late and avoid mirrors.

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