The (German) Origins of the Olympic Torch Relay
In advance of the Summer Olympics in London this summer, the Olympic flame is now being flown from Athens to the UK. The flame was lit using a mirror and the rays of the sun on May 10 in ancient Olympia in Greece, the site of the original games that were first held in 776 BCE. The flame briefly went out and had to be relit before being handed to the first torchbearer, Liverpool-born Greek world champion 10km swimmer Spyros Gianniotis, who then passed it onto 19-year-old Alexis Loukas, the first British torchbearer. For a week, the flame traveled 1,800 miles through Greece before being placed on a plane to the UK, where it will be borne for 8,000 miles before being brought to London.
The lighting of the flame and all the ceremony attached to it originate not in ancient Greece, but with the modern games and, in particular, with the Nazis’ brand of nationalist propaganda. The first time a flame was lit was at the modern Olympics in the Amsterdam 1928 summer games. The relay with the torch traveling on its way to the Olympic stadium originated with the 1936 summer games, held in Berlin.
As Max Fisher writes in The Atlantic, Carl Diem, the secretary general of the organizing committee of the Berlin games, created the torch relay. While he was a Nazi official, Diem, who did seek (unsuccessfully) to “more freely allow German Jews” to participate in the Olympics, cannot entirely be blamed for the “Nazi propaganda piece” that the relay has become:
Whether or not Diem meant it to, a torch relay fit neatly within Nazi propaganda. Beginning the relay in Greece and ending it roughly 1,500 miles away in Berlin reinforced the idea of a shared Aryan heritage between the ancient power and the new one. It also hinted at Hitler’s idea of a natural, civilizational progression from the Greek Empire to the Roman to the German. And the route happened to go through Czechoslovakia, where the stream of Nazi propaganda that surrounded it inspired some members of the ethnic German minority to clash with member of the Czech majority. Two years later, Hitler would invade and occupy part of Czechoslovakia, where he claimed the German minority was at risk.
Hitler also sponsored excavations at ancient Olympia, to lend further weight to the image of Germany as the “heir and caretaker of the ancient powers.”
Fisher emphasizes that the lighting ceremony today has “nothing to do with Nazis or with Hitler’s ethnic nationalism” and that the torch lightning has been reconfigured into “a brighter message of friendly international cooperation.” But, noting the very modern origins of what many think is an ancient tradition, Fisher reflects on why, “for all of Hitler’s legacies we’ve excised from the world, this seems to be one contribution we’re comfortable maintaining.”
The transformation of a ceremony invented by 1930s Germans into what too many people assume is an ancient Greek ceremony is worth highlighting at a time when relations between Germany and Greece are on edge. Just today, the Greek government said that German chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested that Greece hold a referendum on its membership of the eurozone.
The response from Greek politicians has been immediate and angry: Alexis Tsipras, head of the far-left Syriza coalition that has been winning support with its rejection of austerity, said that Merkel has grown used to treating Greece “like a protectorate.” Eva Kaili of the Socialist Party PASOK said that a referendum would be “ironic and … blackmail.”
Beneath the feel-good messages of the Olympics about international cooperation, unity and such lurk more than a few troubling realities as well as deep dissension.
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