Olympic Myths #2 – The Olympic Torch: Author article by Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics. In this regular blog, he comments on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients.

Article by Neil Faulkner

So the Olympic torch is on its way to London. Watching the lighting of the flame at Olympia, you might be forgiven for thinking it is a revival of some ancient rite. We have slender, dark-haired women in fluted white dresses and sandals looking like classical statues amid the grey stone of fallen monuments. We have the heavy symbolism of fire: the life-giving heat of the sun-god being passed by priestesses of fertility to relays of waiting runners who will bear the sacred flame to London.

But this is not an ancient ritual – though the myth of the Olympic torch is deep-rooted. Janie Hampton, in her book on the 1948 London Olympics, for example, assures us that ‘in the ancient Olympics, there had been torch relays spreading out from Olympia to tell the people that the Games were starting’. No there weren’t. The Austerity Olympics (2008) is a splendid book, but it is wrong about this.

The torch appears to be a conflation of two quite separate and unrelated things. A Sacred Flame of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, was kept burning in the Committee Room at ancient Olympia. Torch relay races were held at some other games festivals, notably at the Panathenaic festival in Athens, but never at Olympia.

The torch is not even an invention of the pioneers of the modern Olympics. The Opening Ceremony at the 1896 Athens Games was a modest affair involving a few words from the King of Greece, some cannon fire, and a release of doves. The torch was invented by the Nazis.

The 1936 Berlin Games were the first occasion when the festival was hijacked wholesale for the purposes of political propaganda and national prestige. The neo-classical paganism of Olympic flame symbolism appealed to the Nazi leadership. The arrival of the flame at the stadium and the lighting of a fire in a gigantic bronze tripod-cauldron raised high on its podium fitted easily into the fascist pageantry of the opening ceremony, with its Roman-style placards, marching contingents of uniformed athletes, Heil Hitler salutes, and massed ranks of watching Brownshirts.

Appropriately, the runner who carried the flame into the stadium was a blonde white male. Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia (1936) – in which the master-race is represented by a succession of naked Aryan hulks – captures the moment, and then lingers to show the sun in silhouette behind the flame: a primeval pagan deity giving his blessing, it seems, to the reincarnated beasts of the pit assembled below.

The Second World War ensured there were no games in 1940 or 1944, so the 1948 London Games were the next. The British organisers might have consigned the torch relay to the oblivion it deserved. Instead, they decided it was ‘traditional’ and kept it. The British have a long history of inventing traditions – but few as unsavoury as the Olympic torch.

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics

Dr Neil Faulkner is research fellow at the University of Bristol, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and codirector of several field projects. A freelance archaeologist and historian, his previous books include Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome and Rome: Empire of the Eagles. He lives in Hertfordshire, UK.

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics is published in April 2012.

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