The flame that got away

The protests that have dogged the Olympic Flame from continent to continent provide a unique spectacle in which we see the coming together of spirit and matter, the symbolic and the real, power and resistance. Instead of «spoiling» the torch relay, the protests have given it meaning far beyond that of a simple transit from country to country announcing the Beijing Olympics and heralding the rising giant who will host the Games in August. The torch-lighting ceremony at Olympia and the subsequent relay are a strange mix of antique hocus-pocus, contemporary nonsense and real emotions. The «priestesses» with their slow step and god-fearing glance, the invocation of Apollo («god of light and the idea of light»), the lighting of the flame from the rays of the sun concentrated in a concave mirror, and all the other ancient accouterments of the ceremony (along with the speeches of suit-wearing officers of the domestic and international «Olympic Ideal») create a wild mix of conflicting images. First is the primitive awe in the face of the mystery of fire; we sense a similar feeling in a part of our tradition that is still very much alive: the reported spontaneous combustion of the Holy Flame on candles held by the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem at Easter. At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the fact that the flame-lighting ritual at Olympia and the grand torch relay were both born out of a mix of romanticism and racism at the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Nazis, even as they worshipped their image of themselves as Classical supermen, learned in the hardest way during the Games and the war that followed that there is no such thing as «superior» and «inferior» peoples. As time passed, the flame burned past its dark beginnings and was embraced by television, which had such great need of something that appeared grand, symbolic, pure and related to antiquity in order to give the Games historical gravitas and function as a counterweight to their unbridled commercialism. In essence, the flame is a concept in which a pop interpretation of what constitutes antiquity is yoked to the need to sell the Games to an international audience in the best possible way. But that which gives true value to the ceremony is the expectation of the public and the people’s sense that there truly is a connection between today’s Olympics and those of antiquity. Indeed, the Olympic Games are unique in the way that they bring together all the peoples of the Earth. What the Ancient Games did for the Greeks the Modern Olympics do on a global scale. And so, without our really anticipating it, the torch relay became the symbol of the country that is hosting the Games and the target of all those who have something to say about that country. The 2004 Games were the first in which the torch relay crossed five continents. That relay was a celebration, because few have any reason to protest against our little country’s policies or even notice them. The protests against China, however, were predictable and are a sign of what will follow in Games to come. That is why the International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge was prompted to acknowledge «a crisis» last week: Anything that disturbs the franchise and its global image as a showcase for the best that the world’s youth can offer is bound to create concern. But perhaps the crisis is not bad for the Olympics and the flame. The passion with which the organizers and state officials try to protect it, and the intensity with which demonstrators have tried to disrupt its course indicate that the symbol of the Olympic Flame has become global and is very much alive, and from a symbol it has become a measuring rod, a touchstone. The flame has leaped beyond the cheap theatrics and the embrace of dull officials and, unpredictable as fire, is darting about the world.

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