Like millions of others around the globe, I watched most, if not all, of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. After trying to intepret what seems to have been a history lesson—laced with typically British humor, and capped by Sir Paul McCartney playing one of the great Beatles anthems from the 60s, Hey Jude—I wondered where all this chauvinistic theater came from. Aside from the nostalgia generated by Hey Jude (my nephew, Jay, loved hearing his not-too-sober relatives singing this song), and the admiration for the Brits celebrating their Health-Care-for-All System (compare that with the invective hurled at our President for a Health Care Reform that can’t even be mentioned in the same breath with British coverage), the whole pageant of national self-congratulation seemed awkward if not embarrassing. China’s celebration of four years ago elicited the same response in me. What does all this national breastbeating (carried by a super-commercial television extravaganza reaping huge profits) have to do with a sporting event that is supposed to celebrate amateur athletics? Amateurs, as the root suggests, play sport for the love of the game, not pay. How does this fit with the over-hyped prancing of national athletes and the repulsive we’re-the-greatest-nation stomping of USA! USA! we’ve heard so incessantly in recent years?
It turns out that the modern games were revived in 1896 by a Frenchman, Pierre de Couberin, and taken up by other nations in the early twentieth century as a way of promoting physical fitness and themselves. The Opening Ceremonies were then codified at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, to include the raising of the host nation’s flag and performance of its national anthem, an artistic display of music, singing, theater, and dance expressive of its culture, a parade of athletes into the stadium, and finally the carrying of the Olympic torch into the stadium to light the Olympic flame in a waiting cauldron. This last moment, the lighting of the torch after relay runners of the host nation carry the flame from the source of the games in Athens, is usually portrayed as the most ancient of ceremonies linking the modern games with their origin in Athens some time around 776 BC.
The truth is far different. In fact, the Greeks had no torch relay at all. The torch relay, according to www.history.com, originated with the Nazis at the 1936 games in Berlin. Most Americans know this as the Olympics in which Jesse Owens won the sprint to upset the Nazis’ boast that their Aryan athletes were the world’s best. But the 1936 Olympics was far more. Conceived by the Nazis as a great propaganda maneuver, it was designed as the perfect forum for showing off the organization and power of Nazi Germany to the world, as well as demonstrating that the German race was the natural heir, both physically and culturally, of the Ancient Greeks. Oddly enough, Adolf Hitler at first displayed contempt for the modern Olympic movement, calling it the “invention of Jews and Freemason.” But Goebbels convinced him of its propaganda value, with the torch relay (the brainchild of games organizer Carl Diem) to be the smashing opening act. So the Nazis staged the torch relay as a German production: the steel-clad torches were crafted by German munitions giant Krupp, Germany’s Zeiss Optics built the mirror used to light the flame via the sun, and an Opel car trailed the runners with a spare Olympic flame in case something happened. Goebbels then commissioned famed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to film the relay as part of her 1938 film “Olympia,” though Riefenstahl, dissatisfied with the original, staged a more cinematic lighting of the flame in Berlin after the games were over. Among the highlights of the 2,000 mile torch relay were its entrance into Vienna on July 29, 1936, where Austrian Nazis, who had assassinated the country’s chancellor two years earlier, greeted the flame with cries of “Heil, Hitler!” while shouting epithets at Jewish members of the Austrian Olympic team. Similar crowds of Nazis welcomed the flame’s crossing of the Czech border, while on August 2 some 100,000 Germans bellowed their delirium as German runner Fritz Shilgen carried it into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. In two years, of course, German troops would invade Czechoslovakia as well as Austria, this time with Krupp-made weapons instead of torches of “peace.” But that’s what propaganda is about: a cover for treachery.
It turns out that the Nazis also initiated television broadcasts in 1936, though only to local audiences. Internationally televised Olympics began in 1956 with the Winter Olympics of that year in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy (my favorite name for an Olympic site). After that, television stations began to pay huge fees for TV rights, and the Olympics, now broadcast to an international audience, became the games we now know, targeting not just sports lovers, but the world’s people in a competition to demonstrate, via athletic prowess, something about the superiority of a political/cultural/ideological system. All of the chauvinistic and commercial stupidities of recent years have followed from that.
Too bad. It is fascinating to watch superb athletes compete in all the sports that are now included in the Olympics. It is equally fascinating to reflect that only the Brits could have conceived of the hilarity of James Bond accompanying the queen of England in a parachute jump into the Olympic Stadium. In fact, watching this whole staged setup made me wonder if the great Beatles’ ditty, “Her majesty’s a very nice girl,/ But she doesn’t have a lot to say,” would follow. But no. The Olympics are serious business after all, and the staging had to fit the commercial breaks and the dignity of the host government in the end. The queen was shown having been driven into the stadium after all; the parade of athletes took its endless, boring place; and the “torch of freedom” was carried up the Thames and transferred to a runner, who brought it in to great cheers and lit it in a cauldron so artificial it might have been an alien spaceship; all the while, few in the huge TV audience suspecting that we have the Nazis to thank for the great Olympic flame relay, and for the propaganda that athletic competition has become.