Rings, torches and flames: Symbolism makes the modern Olympics go round

This week richly demonstrated the two faces of Olympics preparations. One side involves the indigestion-producing stories: a voided governmental tender (already late) on the vital issue of security, allegations of budgetary overruns, and a threat by composer Mikis Theodorakis to boycott all Olympics productions. It’s not surprising that the response to all this was an escape abroad into the world of diplomacy, at least on the part of Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who heads the organizing committee involved in only part of this mess. Expansion, or «widening,» has been the main course cooking away on the European stove for the past few months as 10 countries set up for European Union membership. Now, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Athens 2004 chief have pulled an old dish, harmonization or «deepening» of integration, onto the front burner again, offering up an alternative diet for the winter weary. They are proposing a joint European initiative for the Athens 2004 Olympics, along with the Turin Winter Games and soccer’s World Cup in Germany, both in 2006. We don’t yet know what this message might be; still, it’s a twist on the usual EU fare, and a more interesting dish than cold and chewy agricultural policy reform. Words for the world Olympic messages, of course, are meant to be universal, and sometimes take nebulousness to a whole new level. Perhaps it’s also true the other way around: They are intended as general statements with wide application, and because they offend no one in particular while offering inspiration or hope to some, they take on a universalist gloss full of liberal virtue. «Olympism,» at the heart of Pierre de Coubertin’s project, is hard to define; the Olympic Charter and Olympic congresses have tried to pin a cohesive definition on it. It’s meant to be a philosophy of life, based on fair play, good sportsmanship and personal advancement via healthy competition, all within a message of international friendship and good will. Whether we achieve all that in August 2004 is rather unlikely. Cynics might call this woolly globalization, undercut by unsavory realities of the kind mentioned above. But there’s no doubt that, taken at face value, there are far worse things to believe in; even if something is contrived, that doesn’t falsify it or deprive it of value. However unwieldy they might be, Olympic principles are girded by a range of associated rites, rituals and symbols: an athletes’ and officials’ oath; the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony; the five-ringed flag; the Olympic anthem (by Spyros Samaras, lyrics by poet Costas Palamas); the Olympic motto; and torch relay from Ancient Olympia to the flame tower are all a part of it. Flames aloft Close to half the world’s population watch the Olympic opening ceremonies, where these rituals come together – often spectacularly, as with the flaming pools at Sydney, or the fire and ice of Salt Lake City – which must mean that something powerful is at work, beyond the visual fireworks. An important component of this panoply of ritual was unveiled last week in the form of the Olympic torch, a streamlined metal-and-olive-wood receptacle – «fantastic» in the understated opinion of Denis Oswald, the International Olympic Committee’s main overseer of Athens 2004 – to be borne by runners worldwide. The route has yet to be announced, but rest assured it will be the slowest, most roundabout and highest-profile trip ever attempted from the Peloponnese to Attica. And on a bus tour of the Olympic facilities not too long ago, our guide was guarding the exact spot at the Olympic Stadium where the cauldron will burn like it was a state secret. Talk about the visible becoming invisible. Whatever their ultimate value, these things are surely taken seriously. The torch relay, like many contemporary Olympic symbols, was neither an ancient practice nor even part of the early modern Olympics experience. There was a torch parade through the streets of Athens during the 1896 Games, which lent the event an atmospheric touch, but that involved thousands bearing lanterns. The practice of a single lit torch borne by runner relay was inaugurated on the worst possible occasion: the notorious «Nazi Olympics» in Berlin in 1936. The idea came from the German organizing committee chairman, Dr Carl Diem; the German Olympiad was desperately seeking legitimacy and it reached out (if not back) to ancient Olympia to find it. Hence the idea of lighting the flame there and ferrying it by hand, via 3,000 runners and seven countries, all the way to Berlin. The Hitler regime survived less than a decade more, but the torch relay has been kept alive. The route gets longer every time and must be a nightmare to organize across entire continents; Chancellor Schroeder himself says he wants to carry the torch. For the Sydney Games, the relay actually touched off a minor political firestorm, stemming from an unpopular decision to bump a Greek-Australian girl from a choice spot because of favoritism by somebody on the organizing committee. And the technological envelope gets pushed further all the time. At Montreal, the Olympic flame was relayed by laser beam; the Sydney organizers concocted a torch that kept burning even underwater as it crossed the Great Barrier Reef by scuba diver. Maybe it will get to Beijing in 2008 by Internet, or bounced off the surface of Mars. For Athens, anyway, humans will do the honors. Torch relays to the Winter Games are much more recent, starting in 1952 (lit close by, in Norway), and it was officially lit at Olympia for the first time in 1964. It took decades before the IOC could bring itself to sanction the Olympia connection, holding the flame in one hand and its collective nose with the other, because the Winter Games were thought more tainted by professionalism and commercialism. Way back when Yet none of this really has a precedent in the ancient Games. It’s true that heralds went forth from Elis province, whose citizens ran the Olympic Games, to Greek territories to announce the Olympics and the truce, but it was a proclamation engraved in a tablet. A perpetual flame did burn at Olympia, at the altar of Zeus, but it stayed put. Some local Games in ancient times, including at Athens, did involve a torch-race (lampadedromia), the main team-type event. It was rooted in religious ritual, when fire was carried from one altar to another, dedicated to the patron deity, and was actually a race. The torch relay at the Panathenaic Games in Athens went from the Academy to the Acropolis, a race of over 2,500 meters and involved 40 runners representing their tribes. In those events, the runners ran naked, a practice unlikely to be sanctioned again anytime soon. Still other knockoffs were also tried; in Hellenistic times, for example, some individual torch-races were held, and a torch relay race on horseback was introduced from Thrace to Athens and elsewhere. At Brauron, in eastern Attica, there was apparently even a torch race for young girls. So although burning flames, local-level torch races, and traveling heralds were all part of the ancient world, the Olympics back then had no equivalent of our symbolic relay. In fact, we may have got things the wrong way around. To be historically accurate about it, we should be lighting the flame in downtown Athens, where it was a part of the proceedings, and carrying it to Olympia, where it was not. But pigs will fly first. Something borrowed Baron de Coubertin may have been an original and the Olympics his baby, but most Olympic symbols were not his. Carl Diem thought up the torch relay; William Penny Brookes initiated athletes’ processions and victory ceremonies; Michel Breal thought up the marathon race; the Bishop of Pennsylvania proposed that taking part rather than winning was the most important thing; Theodore Lewald, from the IOC, conceived of the Olympic flame, which first appeared in Amsterdam in 1928; and a French cleric, Henri Didon, gave the idea of «citius, altius, fortius» or «swifter, higher, stronger» as the official motto – though it’s in Latin rather than in Greek. The parade of athletes behind national flags was first held in Athens at the 1906 «unofficial» Olympics. The main symbol of all, the multicolored five-ringed flag does seem to have been a de Coubertin invention, two interlocking rings represented his original union of French sports which he expanded to five in 1913. It first flew at the Antwerp Games of 1920. Apart from the oath of honesty, one convention that has been held over from the ancients is the use of Olympiads as time-markers. Thus Athens will be the 28th (sorry, XXVIIIth) Olympiad but only the 25th Summer Games (three were canceled). But who uses Roman numerals anymore, anyway? And the ritualistic side still invites tinkering; along with renewed efforts to promote a worldwide Olympic truce, there is even talk of bringing back olive wreaths to give to Olympic medalists. That could get seriously cheesy, while it’s good that ideas keep flowing, one of the problems of rituals is that the line between meaningful and meaningless can be thin. The best thing about the new torch is its simple lines and lack of gaudy extras. Perhaps there’s hope yet for the promises of an unpretentious Games in Athens.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.