Lets get rid of the fascist Olympic torch
If ever there was an “invented tradition” well worth stamping out, it is this ridiculous, Fascist-inspired waste of money – which sends a Bunsen Burner around the world at tremendous cost for several months before the Games, manned (and womanned) by people dressed up in pseudo-ancient Greek costume, no doubt feeling very silly.
In London, we are now told, it will soon be doing a mini tour, carried by a London bus, Docklands Light Railway and Dame Kelly Holmes (inter alios).
I can’t quite work out whether most of the press reports are pleased at the pro-Tibetan protests which dented the hi-tech assisted, sunbeam lighting ceremonial (plucky little Tibet poking the Chinese dragon where it, for once, might hurt); or whether they are a touch censorious at this upsetting of the peaceful, non-political programme of the Olympic Games that we have inherited from the ancient Greeks; or whether they are wondering what might happen to the UK in the ceremonies to come in 2012 (don’t forget Iraq, Mr Blair/Brown….).
Hardly any commentator stops to mention that this silly torch ceremony has nothing to do with the ancient Greeks, and was really invented to be a magnificent shot in Leni Riefenstahl’s movie (choreographed by Carl Diem). This is one of Hitler’s most pervasive legacies.
They also don’t stop to mention that the ancient Olympics – far from being that sweet haven of peace -- were pretty political anyway. Even in their hay-day, they were often interrupted by the rough hand of Politics.
The classic case is the eligibility of Alexander the Great’s ancestor, Alexander 1 of Macedon. When he turned up to compete in the early fifth century BC , the other Greeks said that he was a foreigner and so wasn’t eligible. Eventually the gate-keepers allowed him to take part, but -- although he finished first (equal) – he didn’t get his name written into the official list of winners. (Hence, he is an awkward example on both sides for the modern argument about whether “Macedonia” is “Greek”. Does Alexander 1 prove the Greekness of the Macedonians, or vice versa?).
But there were plenty more political controversies. The worst was in 364 BC when the Games happened while Olympia was under enemy occupation, or more accurately in the middle of a war zone. In fact, the Arcadians (Olympia’s neighbours in the Peloponnese) invaded during the Pentathlon event and some of their soldiers looted the sacred treasures. So much for the “Sacred Truce”.
That was only the tip of the iceberg. In the 380s Lysias, the Athenian orator and democratic hero, harangued his fellow countrymen, urging them more or less to wreck the Olympic village. Four and a half centuries later, the Olympic officials appear to have turned a blind eye and let the emperor Nero win whatever competition he wanted -- in return for some rather generous investment at the Olympic site.
We may not like the politicisation of the Olympic games, but let’s not pretend that this is a modern invention.