The Chinese call it the “Journey of Harmony” and they are in good company, both as an oppressive and self-delusionary regime. Hitler went down the same path. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film ‘Olympia’ documented the very first lighting of a torch at a Greek temple and its consequent carrying by a thousand runners to an athletic competition – in in this case the 1936 Olympic Games in fascist Berlin.
Riefenstahl created the myth that even the Greeks never told. The filmic counterpart to the opening of Wagner’s “Ring” lets an entire world gradually emerge from elemental fragments. The camera begins by surveying a misty landscape of ruins, of shattered pillars and overgrown grasses. Restless and circling, the camera reveals a Greek temple standing amid the stones. Heads and the bodies of Greek statues appear in an eerie erotic landscape. Under the sensuous caresses of Riefenstahl’s lens, a naked discus thrower comes to life, polished stone becoming muscular flesh. Another athlete prepares to throw a javelin, its trajectory leading toward a bowl of fire. Lighting the Olympic torch, another nude acolyte triumphantly raises it aloft like Wagner’s Siegfried displaying his sword.
Humanity is given its purpose; the relay begins. The torch is conveyed from one bearer to the next and ends in Berlin at a 110,000-seat stadium where it ignites an altar of flame. Through shimmering heat the sun itself can be seen, vibrating in sympathy. And Hitler salutes the cheering crowds; Nazi Germany had become the living heir to Ancient Greece.
This claim was not unrelated to the very existence of the Olympic games. As Nigel Spivey shows in his book “The Ancient Olympics,” many different traditions, myths and cults fed the Greek games. But the founding of the modern Olympics was far more straightforward. A German scholar, J .J. Winckelmann (1717-1768 ) proposed excavating Olympia, the ancient site of the Greek games; the honor was eventually left to a 19th-century German scholar, Ernst Curtius.
It was a Frenchman, however, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern international Olympics with the first games in 1896, explicitly declaring that the French should reconstitute what the Germans had exhumed. The implied rivalry was more bloodily enacted in the battlefield beginning in 1914, two years before Germany was supposed to host the games for the first time.
Then, after its defeat, Germany was banned from the Olympics in 1920 and 1924. So hosting the games in Berlin in 1936 was a kind of restitution, like the one the Nazis sought on a grander scale, undoing the humiliating post-World War I penalties. (Germany had also just remilitarized the Rhineland.) But Hitler wanted the torch fully in German hands. He authorized a resumption of German excavations at Olympia while an organizer of the 1936 games, Carl Diem, came up with the idea of the relay.
“In 1940,” Hitler told the Nazi architect Albert Speer, “the Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come.” Speer was to build a 400,000-seat stadium in Nuremberg as the Olympics’ permanent home. (An exhibition about the 1936 games will open at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 25.)
The International Olympic Committee, of course, offers a slightly different account of the torch relay. (See multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_655.pdf.) The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, explains that the torch alludes to the “positive values that Man has always associated with fire,” its relay transmitting “a message of peace and friendship amongst peoples.” But the Olympics still preserves the self-loving aura of the Nazi myth.
White-robed priestesses in the ruined temple of Hera (all actresses of course) light the torch using focused rays of the sun; backup flames insure that the fire’s lineage remains intact in case the main torch is temporarily extinguished (as it was this year). “The purity of the flame,” the Olympics brochure piously explains, “is guaranteed by the way it is lit using the sun’s rays.”
It was partly in opposition to such fetishistic reverence that in 1956, as the torch made its way to the games in Melbourne, Australia, a student interloper made a model out of a chair leg and a plum-pudding can stuffed with a burning pair of underpants and solemnly presented the flaming symbol to the mayor of Sydney. But more recently the relay has needed no help in attaining kitsch and stunt. In 1976 the flame was used to send an electronic pulse by satellite from Athens to Ottawa, where a programmed laser lighted a torch. In 1996 the passing of the flame took place between two parachute jumpers. In 2000 a flaming torch (presumably protected) was carried under water at the Great Barrier Reef.
Now, despite China’s attempt to put a smiley face on the torch relay — “Light the Passion, Share the Dream” says the Chinese Web site (see torchrelay.beijing2008.cn/en) — the Tibetan protests have laid bare its nationalist essence. There are reasons why the Chinese wanted a route that invoked glory (by touching Everest’s peak) and power (by passing through Taiwan).
Of course in 1936 the relay reflected a more ominous threat. The torch was carried through Salonika, Greece; Sofia, Bulgaria; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Budapest; and Vienna, and was welcomed along the way not by extensive protests but with pro-Nazi demonstrations. A prescient editorial in The New York Times, sensing the drumbeats of war, called the torch’s route a “strategic highway” that traced the line of the German “Drang Nach Osten” — the drive to the East that the Kaiser sought in the First World War, and which Hitler was soon to put into practice.
Since then the torch’s routes, like the games themselves, have regularly been subject to disruption and conflict. The defense of the Olympic enterprise is that the universal ideals of good sportsmanship and fair-mindedness provide a means to transcend national difference. But the history suggests that sentimentality is being slathered over rituals and practice that proclaim something quite different.
The Greeks themselves were more forthright. They believed, Mr. Spivey suggests, that “all games were war games.” At a conference at Yale this month about Greek “hoplite” warfare — in which a wide array of Greek citizenry supposedly maneuvered together in vast, linked phalanxes — one hypothesis was that this reflected a revolutionary view of an interconnected citizenry. In this light all war games also became social games. At any rate all games were as serious as war, and none were about the brotherhood of all mankind.
Perhaps, then, pretense should be eliminated. The Olympic Games should simply acknowledge that they reflect wars fought by other means. Not a pleasant thought, but perhaps closer to the truth than the perspective of Avery Brundage, the fifth president of the International Olympic Committee, who just after the 1936 Berlin games said they proved that the Olympics are “the most effective influence towards international peace and harmony yet devised.”
Click on images to enlarge.
[thanks to the New York Times]