Peter Jones

Carrying a torch for Hitler

The Olympic flame relay did not begin in Ancient Greece

The Olympic Committee has begun its quest to find ‘inspirational men and women’ to carry by hand the sacred Olympic torch from its ancestral home in Greece to its final destination in London. One can sense Zeus stirring from his eternal slumbers on cloud-capped Mount Olympus in anticipation of this age-old ritual, well satisfied that the greatest Panhellenic event of the ancient world, once held in his honour at his sanctuary in Olympia 140 miles away, is still signalled by the flame’s traditional progress in the hands of relays of runners from country to country. Some things, we may smugly reflect, never die.

But a moment’s further reflection may suggest there is something rather fishy about this circumambulatory torch. These days, it carries the flame from Olympia to the city where the Games are going to be held. Question: where were the Games held in ancient Greece? Answer: every four years, from 776 bc till ad 393, in the same place—Olympia. So it was lit in Olympia and then carried to Olympia, was it? πολλὰ τὰ δεινά [Polla ta deina], said Sophocles, ‘There are many astonishing things’, but this was not one of them.

Nor, incidentally, was there anything unique about the flame, as if it might have needed transporting anywhere in the first place. Every sanctuary in the whole Greek world had fires burning in it, for the simple reason that fire was divine, stolen from Zeus and given to mere mortals by Prometheus (who was severely punished for his pains). Where else should it burn but a sanctuary? So Zeus might well be boiling with rage that his rituals were being mucked about with.

Time, therefore, to wipe the steam from the mirror of yet another Olympic delusion with a few facts, the first of which is that the only ghosts to be stirring will be those of Hitler, Goebbels and their tame Nazi sports-administrator Carl Diem.

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