Olympic Flame in a split-level world

The Olympics are all about Games, but are the Olympics themselves caught up in a two-level game? This question, which sounds harsher than it is, arises as security worries and frightening scenarios for 2004 compete for attention with the unveiling this week of next year’s torch relay, with its anodyne message of peace, brotherhood and unity via an age-old symbol of purity. If opposites attract, then the Olympics – which are far and away humanity’s biggest celebration – are now a prime example of this principle. On one hand, the Games and their vulnerability are attracting the full attention of the Greek Defense Ministry. The international web of cooperation, which already involves experts from seven different countries, is widening further as the government is utilizing intelligence networks in other countries, including its Balkan neighbors and Arab states. Reports of a NATO «takeover» of Games security proved unfounded, at least for the moment. But the mere possibility indicates the extent of the ongoing worries. Lighting the torch Among these concerns, but in only the most oblique references to them, came an event Wednesday laden with feel-good symbolism, namely the «unveiling» of the Olympic torch relay. Some of its previously known elements were highlighted: It will be the first «global» relay, encompassing all five inhabited continents for the first time (including Rio de Janeiro in South America and Cairo and Cape Town in Africa), and the first to visit all previous Olympic cities. Plan details and a surprise, or two, were also in store. It may be all for show, but there were glimpses of something genuinely moving to come next spring. The flame will pass through dozens of cities and hundreds of hamlets at ground level. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge noted that the torch relay is special not only for its highfalutin symbolism but for its sheer ordinariness: Champion athletes and regular citizens all have the chance to carry the torch for a short (400-meter) hop and a couple of minutes in the limelight. Rogge himself will do the honors when it passes through Lausanne, IOC headquarters. Run, pause, run The relay is based on a three-stage plan that was rationalized but not quite satisfactorily. The flame will be lit four-and-a-half months before the Games, on March 25, in Ancient Olympia, according to custom. This date – Annunciation Day as well as Greece’s national day – was chosen, said Hellenic Olympic Committee President Lambis Nikolaou, mainly to link 2004 with 1896 (the Athens revival Games opened on that day) and in deference to the wishes of Evangelos Zappas, a 19th century Greek Olympic benefactor. Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos will attend and the religious mass along with assorted other festivities transferred to Olympia, making the ancient site Greece’s effective capital for two chaotic days. The early date also lessens the likelihood that the sun – nominally a prerequisite for lighting the flame with its special mirror – will even be shining. After a brief, weeklong run through the Peloponnese, the relay will cross over to the island of Aegina and then to Athens, where it will take a heartily unearned rest for two months as the flame burns at the Panathenaic Stadium. Then it will be flown to Sydney where, on June 4, it will begin its second, international leg. Traveling by boat, car, airplane, bicycle, motorcycle, and human legpower, it will proceed through 34 cities in 27 countries. Each morning while on the road, the flame will be lit anew from a special lantern, and each evening it will arrive in a different city for its own celebration aiming at maximum public exposure. On July 9, the flame will return to Greece for another 35 days’ route through the rest of the country, including 174 total «destinations,» 32 islands (depending on weather), and all 54 prefectures. It will wind its way back to Athens – for the third and final time – for the August 13 opening ceremony. About 7,700 torchbearers will be chosen in Greece and another 3,600 internationally. During this final leg, Greece will be able to show its «dynamic, hospitable, and luminous» sides in this first, and likely only, Greek relay to its own Games. Bearers will be picked according to their own criteria over the next couple of months, Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said after the ceremony. Jogging with solemnity Yet it is «more than a narrow Greek celebration,» insisted Foreign Minister George Papandreou, but a «powerful message» for peace along with the Olympic Truce adopted by the United Nations General Assembly early this month. It is a «mosaic of peace and hope,» the Athens 2004 chief added. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos stressed the Greek heritage and the «culture of civilizations» theme of his ministry’s Cultural Olympiad. Despite all the spirited references to antiquity and to 1896, a torch relay did not figure at either Olympics. An Olympic cauldron was first lit for the 1928 Amsterdam Games, and the first relay from Ancient Olympia was in 1936, to Berlin. At Ancient Olympia, a flame was kept lit at the Altar of Hestia and heralds went out (flame-less) to announce the Games, while at Athens 1896 a torchlight parade was held. A surprise presence at Wednesday’s ceremony was Constantinos Kondylis, who was the inaugural torchbearer in 1936. A mere 67 years on and still evidently in good health, he is perhaps the best possible advertisement for the relay, sport, and the vigorous life. Ghostly politics Its «uniting humanity» overtones give the torch relay a political message in the broadest sense of the term. Yet the many luminaries present – three Greek ministers, two mayors (of Athens and Olympia), the IOC head, members of Parliament, top brass at Athens 2004 – scrupulously avoided direct references to the political situation either at home or abroad. The understandable aim, as Angelopoulos-Daskalaki pointed out, was to «highlight what brings us together, not what pulls us apart.» The backdrop seems troublesome if not dire, which does, of course, raise the profile of the torch relay itself. Yet it was odd to hear references to the torch passing through New York, referred to as the home of the United Nations but not to the (now lost) World Trade Center, or to note that the relay will pass through Sofia but not Sarajevo (a former Winter Olympic host and vivid symbol of human division), or to hear mention of Istanbul without reference to the recent bombing tragedies there. And the flame route could be shifted away from troubled cities if need be. These developments make the torch relay arguably even more significant, and mentioning them hardly compromises the Olympics or the relay. But not mentioning them makes the relay seem anachronistic and disengaged from the world and its problems. It was also ironic to see politicians scrupulously avoiding references to politics at a high-profile public event, in Greece no less, and at the start of an election season to boot. Yet the decision to start the flame’s journey in late March would clearly boost the government, facing tough elections the following month. One other quirky possibility rears its head. The relay plan still awaits official approval by the IOC Executive Committee, on December 4. What if the committee defies the presumed rubber stamp, flexes its muscles and throws the plan out? It’s hardly likely but points up the possible hitches in organizations. In fact, the ambitious Athens 2004 relay has already sparked an IOC reform; future relays are expected to be limited to a month and to host-country territory (as well as the flame-lighting in Olympia). So much for setting precedents.

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