Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Olympic Torch

You should navigate away from this page immediately if you are one of those people who believes that the Olympic games is just one great big party and that anyone pointing out evidence to the contrary is just a big spoilsport. You know who you are, David Mitchell.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the country is buzzing with excitement at the news of the Olympic torch route. Some 8,000 people will carry the torch on a 70-day, 8,000 mile, nationwide journey. And I’m sure that for these people it will indeed be a “historic moment”, “something to tell the grandchildren about”, “a day to remember” and all the other tired clich├ęs that have been wheeled out. The local paper here in Portsmouth went so far as to say that “Olympic pride” would “light up the streets” when the torch passes through. Yet for an awful lot of people it will just look like an odd collection of joggers carrying fire on a stick.

The idea of an Olympic torch was the brainwave of a man called Carl Diem - an administrator, educationalist and historian who occupied a prominent position in German sports for a number of years. In 1932 Diem headed the successful bid from Berlin to host the 1936 Olympics. Within a year of the award Hitler had risen to power in Germany. It seems unlikely that Diem himself was a Nazi (his wife had Jewish ancestry) but, whether through fear or personal ambition, he swallowed whatever concerns he may have had and, undoubtedly, helped hide from the world the fact that Jewish sportspeople were barred from the German team.

Like so many in the Olympic movement at the time, Diem was a classicist, devoted to ancient Greece and her games. His suggestion of an Olympic flame, kindled at the site of Olympia and carried to Berlin may have been born of noble intentions, an idealistic gesture in a troubled world, but it was exploited for all it was worth by the Nazis. Swastikas and crowds would greet the torch in Bulgaria, Austria and Germany itself. Both Diem and the Nazis, the past and the present, wanted to utilise the power of spectacle, and the International Olympic Committee has turned it into a tradition.

Still for millions of people the Olympic torch does still represent something. It is a signifier of purity, integrity and fair play. In a world stained and scarred by racism, war and national rivalries its passing from person to person, place to place, is a symbolic gesture of goodwill and shared humanity. Which is exactly why so many corporations are desperate to jump on the bandwagon and have their name associated with the Olympic brand. Coca-Cola has paid more than £100 million to be the official soft-drinks provider at London 2012. And they, along with Samsung and Lloyds TSB, even sponsored the nomination process for selecting torchbearers. 

It is a wonderfully ironic twist that the torch, now a symbol of this marriage between sport and business, will start its journey out of Portsmouth from Fratton Park, the home of Portsmouth Football Club, itself symbolic of what happens when that marriage ends in a messy divorce.
Symbols can often seem contradictory as different interpretations compete for predominance. No doubt some people will watch the Union flag being hoisted at this summer’s medal ceremonies and feel a temporary sense of pride in their imagined community, whilst fascists and racists will experience something far uglier. Millions more of us will, however, see nothing more than the Butcher’s Apron fluttering in the breeze. Similarly the Olympic torch is a contested symbol. But, whatever it is meant to represent, I can’t help but see a corporate logo, an illusion of an ideal decked out in dollar signs. And a little bit of me hopes it rains.