The Olympic flame relay did not begin in Ancient Greece
The Olympic Committee has begun its quest to find ‘inspirational men and women’ to carry by hand the sacred Olympic torch from its ancestral home in Greece to its final destination in London. One can sense Zeus stirring from his eternal slumbers on cloud-capped Mount Olympus in anticipation of this age-old ritual, well satisfied that the greatest Panhellenic event of the ancient world, once held in his honour at his sanctuary in Olympia 140 miles away, is still signalled by the flame’s traditional progress in the hands of relays of runners from country to country. Some things, we may smugly reflect, never die.
But a moment’s further reflection may suggest there is something rather fishy about this circumambulatory torch. These days, it carries the flame from Olympia to the city where the Games are going to be held. Question: where were the Games held in ancient Greece? Answer: every four years, from 776 bc till ad 393, in the same place—Olympia. So it was lit in Olympia and then carried to Olympia, was it? πολλὰ τὰ δεινά [Polla ta deina], said Sophocles, ‘There are many astonishing things’, but this was not one of them.
Nor, incidentally, was there anything unique about the flame, as if it might have needed transporting anywhere in the first place. Every sanctuary in the whole Greek world had fires burning in it, for the simple reason that fire was divine, stolen from Zeus and given to mere mortals by Prometheus (who was severely punished for his pains). Where else should it burn but a sanctuary? So Zeus might well be boiling with rage that his rituals were being mucked about with.
Time, therefore, to wipe the steam from the mirror of yet another Olympic delusion with a few facts, the first of which is that the only ghosts to be stirring will be those of Hitler, Goebbels and their tame Nazi sports-administrator Carl Diem. Further, they will be stirring with self-satisfaction, since the international cross-country torch relay was their idea.
Berlin had been told that it would be granted the Olympic Games for 1916, but the Great War ended all that. Germany was banned from participating in the 1920 and 1924 Games, but its two skilful and committed administrators, Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald, restored German entry to the Amsterdam Games (1928), and after Los Angeles (1932) won the 1936 Games for Berlin. They might have been scrapped when Hitler came to power in 1933, since he suspected that international sport was a conspiracy cooked up by Jews and Freemasons. But he had his mind changed by Goebbels, who saw them as a golden opportunity to showcase what an advanced nation Germany had become, how vastly superior the Aryan race was and how worthy an inheritor of ancient Greek ideals and values. (The Olympic Games? Political? Don’t be ridiculous.)
It was in this context that in 1934 Diem dreamed up his idea of inaugurating the Games in Berlin with a flame, carried across Europe by a relay of racially acceptable runners, in a torch lit in Olympia. So on 20 July 1936, the ‘sacred’ Olympic flame was duly created from steel reflectors (by Zeiss) — the same technique is still used today — in a ceremony featuring virginal priestesses in short skirts, a high priestess, and a choir singing a Pindaric ode, and duly transmitted to a magnesium-fuelled torch (by Krupp) held by a Greek athlete. Thence it was relayed over the 1,400 miles to Berlin, mainly via countries that would within a few years find themselves under the peace-loving Nazi jackboot. On 1 August, in an arena hung with huge banners sporting the swastika, Hitler assured the crowds that sport helped create peace between nations and expressed the wish that the Olympic flame should never die. The 3,075th runner lit the ‘eternal’ flame, and Hitler was presented with an olive branch from Olympia.
Where on earth did Diem get this idea from? Its origins may lie in a blend of two ancient Greek customs. First, cities held local torch relay-races of a religious nature, where the winner placed his torch on the altar of whichever god(dess) was being celebrated; second, in the spring of each Olympic year, three ‘sacred heralds’ were sent from Olympia to travel the Greek world, asking city-states to ensure safe passage for travellers to the Games. But whatever the explanation, the idea proved an instant winner with the IOC and has been repeated ever since.
So should it be banned? Of course not. Ritual, however bogus, is by definition the life-blood of Solemn Rites like the Olympic Games, signifying the mystical union of nations. Further, the argument that the torch-relay is not ancient is completely irrelevant. The original Games were a cult festival in honour of the gods and devoted to sacrifices, offerings and prayers; were staged only in Olympia; lasted five days, with virtually no change in the 13 events on display from 520 bc onwards (and certainly not including the Marathon, another modern invention as an Olympic event); had no concept of ‘records’; gave prizes (an olive-wreath) only to the winners; featured males, not females, naked, not clothed; and were contested not by teams from different Greek states, but by professional, locally financed individuals who had to present themselves in Olympia a month in advance. They were given a strict training regime by the judges, and competed in trial contests. The result was that some athletes won the prize akoniti, ‘without dust’, i.e. without a contest: their rivals, seeing the competition and keen not to be humiliated, simply withdrew. You got nothing for a pathetic second or third in those days.
In other words, except for the professionalism, the cheating and a few of the events (sprint, the ‘mile’, javelin, discus, boxing, wrestling, long-jump, pentathlon), nothing survives of the ancient Olympics whatsoever. So what? We don’t live in ancient Greece. And what’s the odd Nazi-inspired fantasy between the IOC and its mission of peace, harmony and goodwill between all peoples?