In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm demonstrates that many of the customs and ceremonies that appear to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes completely made up.
Invented traditions can be a great source of amusement because we all tend to take them seriously and even get a bit emotional about them with the right kind of brass band and the impetus of a passionate crowd.
But as soon as one scratches the historical surface, their true origins come back to bite us on our collective backside.
The Olympic torch is a good example of this. Local heroes and celebrities are running down a street near us, carrying this beacon of inspiration, linking communities across Britain with the excitement of the Olympics and reminding us of all the immemorial traditions that are perpetuated by the Games.
But just how immemorial is the Olympic torch relay? Does it really take us back to Ancient Olympia, the cradle of the Games? Not quite.
No symbolic relevance
The Ancient Olympics never had a ceremony (or even an athletic event) involving a torch as a central element. Olympia did have an eternal fire, which was kept burning in honour of Hestia (the goddess of the hearth) and was used to light all the other sacrificial fires throughout the complex of temples.
The Ancient Olympics also had the Hekatomb, a religious ceremony that involved sacrificing 100 oxen and burning their legs on a large pyre in honour of Zeus.
However, the torches used to light these fires did not have any particular symbolic relevance (unlike, say, the golden sickle used to cut the olive branches for the victors’ wreaths, which did have a ritual significance as an object).
In Athens (approximately 265 kilometres east of Olympia), the Panathenaia festival included a torch event. However, this was a relay race held alongside other competitive events, rather than a ceremony in and of itself. So, it’s not really Ancient Olympia.
Music and poetry
Do the origins of the Olympic torch relay take us back to 1896 then, the dawn of the modern Olympics? No. Pierre de Coubertin, mastermind of the modern international Olympic movement, had his sights set on convincing the world of the great artistic and educational potential embodied by the newly revived Olympic Games.
In his view, the best way to get his point across was to incorporate a flurry of spectacles including art, music, poetry and architecture alongside the athletic competitions.
There was no torch relay in the 1896 Olympic opening ceremony. Instead, the occasion was marked with a few speeches, an Olympic Hymn performed by nine bands and 150 choir singers, and a variety of musical offerings (all very civil).
The Olympic torch relay as we know it today has a much shadier and more recent origin. It was invented for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Many Nazis believed that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich (Hitler, for instance, claimed that the Dorian tribe which had migrated into Greece from the north was of German origin and Goebbels referred to the Acropolis as the cradle of Germanic culture).
Germany was keen to use the Olympics as a tool to lend credence to these phony historical theories. The 1936 Games, and in particular all the fanfare that surrounded them, had been planned with immense care by the Nazi leadership to project the image of the Third Reich as a modern, rich and influential state.
The torch relay, fabricated specifically for the occasion, was part of this carefully orchestrated Nazi propaganda stunt.
It was German classical scholar and sports administrator Carl Diem who came up with the theatrics of the torch relay. Where did he get the idea from? Well, it was probably a mishmash of loose classical references.
There is a bit of Prometheus in there (stealing fire from Zeus), a bit of Hestia’s eternal flame, a bit of the Panathenaia torch race and probably a bit of the spondophoroi carrying the Olympic message of peace (ekecheiria) from one Greek city to another before the start of the ancient Games.
The Nazi government added its own ironic twist to the classical idea of the peace message by commissioning a film of the Olympic torch traversing a group of European nations which the Nazis were secretly hoping to conquer (Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia).
Grim and bleak
In one of those wildly unpredictable turns of history, the Olympic torch relay was readopted and saved from oblivion a few years later by the British Olympic Association, which reinstated the tradition in the 1948 London Olympics.
One would have thought that the British, out of all people, would be the first to eradicate any trace of Nazi-inspired pseudo-historical symbolism from the Olympics (especially as it had only been three years since the end of the war).
So why wasn’t the torch relay locked in the musty, dark vaults of Nazi imagery and the keys thrown away?
Well, the Olympic movement was not doing very well by 1948. World War II had significantly reduced people’s appetite for international cooperation and fraternal coming-togethers. Most of the world was a pretty grim and bleak place full of distrust, poverty and resentment.
In fact, there had been much debate as to whether or not to continue with the Olympics at all. The modern Games were at risk of premature death and the British Olympic Association knew this. They realised that it was imperative to capture people’s imagination.
As a journalist in The Times wrote, if there was one event that had succeeded in capturing the public imagination, that was ‘the carrying of the lighted torch from distant Olympia to the Stadium at Wembley’.
Yes, it was a completely phony tradition and it was originally created as Nazi propaganda. But, these minor inconveniences aside, it had proven to be very popular, and that was precisely what the 1948 Olympic organising committee needed.
On 17 July 1948, two weeks before the opening of the London games, the torch set off from Greece through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium on its way to London for the opening ceremony.
The 1948 Games turned out to be a success and rekindled an international interest in Olympism. So, when you next see Kylie Minogue striking a flirty pose with the Olympic torch in the centre of London, just be glad it isn’t Goebbels.