Politics and the Olympics: Fire and Fascism

Posted on April 8th, 2008 by

Read Mary Beard on the fascist origins of the Olympic torch relay and the political nature of the Olympics even in ancient times.

Hardly any commentator stops to mention that this silly torch ceremony has nothing to do with the ancient Greeks, and was really invented to be a magnificent shot in Leni Riefenstahl’s movie (choreographed by Carl Diem). This is one of Hitler’s most pervasive legacies.

They also don’t stop to mention that the ancient Olympics – far from being that sweet haven of peace — were pretty political anyway. Even in their hay-day, they were often interrupted by the rough hand of Politics.

The classic case is the eligibility of Alexander the Great’s ancestor, Alexander 1 of Macedon. When he turned up to compete in the early fifth century BC , the other Greeks said that he was a foreigner and so wasn’t eligible. Eventually the gate-keepers allowed him to take part, but — although he finished first (equal) – he didn’t get his name written into the official list of winners. (Hence, he is an awkward example on both sides for the modern argument about whether “Macedonia” is “Greek”. Does Alexander 1 prove the Greekness of the Macedonians, or vice versa?).

But there were plenty more political controversies. The worst was in 364 BC when the Games happened while Olympia was under enemy occupation, or more accurately in the middle of a war zone. In fact, the Arcadians (Olympia’s neighbours in the Peloponnese) invaded during the Pentathlon event and some of their soldiers looted the sacred treasures. So much for the “Sacred Truce”.

That was only the tip of the iceberg. In the 380s Lysias, the Athenian orator and democratic hero, harangued his fellow countrymen, urging them more or less to wreck the Olympic village. Four and a half centuries later, the Olympic officials appear to have turned a blind eye and let the emperor Nero win whatever competition he wanted — in return for some rather generous investment at the Olympic site.

We may not like the politicisation of the Olympic games, but let’s not pretend that this is a modern invention.

More from the Independent: Aryan ideals, not ancient Greece, were the inspiration behind flame tradition

There is a two-word answer to those who think the Olympic torch is a symbol of harmony between nations that should be kept apart from politics – Adolf Hitler.

The ceremony played out on the streets of Paris yesterday did not originate in ancient Greece, nor even in the 19th century, when the Olympic movement was revived. The entire ritual, with its pagan overtones, was devised by a German named Dr Carl Diem, who ran the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Although he was not a Nazi, and was appointed to run the Olympics before the Nazis came to power, Diem adapted very quickly to the new regime, and ended the war as a fanatical military commander exhorting teenage Germans to die like Spartans rather than accept defeat. Thousands did, but not Diem, who lived to be 80.

He sold to Josef Goebbels – in charge of media coverage of the Games – the idea that 3,422 young Aryan runners should carry burning torches along the 3,422km route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin.

It was his idea that the flame should be lit under the supervision of a High Priestess, using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays, and passed from torch to torch along the way, so that when it arrived in the Berlin stadium it would have a quasi-sacred purity.

The concept could hardly fail to appeal to the Nazis, who loved pagan mythology, and saw ancient Greece as an Aryan forerunner of the Third Reich. The ancient Greeks believed that fire was of divine origin, and kept perpetual flames burning in their temples.

In Olympia, where the ancient games were held, the flame burnt permanently on the altar of the goddess Hestia. In Athens, athletes used to run relay races carrying burning torches, in honour of certain gods.

But the ancient Games were proclaimed by messengers wearing olive crowns, a symbol of the sacred truce which guaranteed that athletes could travel to and from Olympus safely. There were no torch relays associated with the ancient Olympics until Hitler.


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