In the late 1950s, two British archaeologists made an important discovery whilst excavating at the ancient site of Delphi in Greece. Here, several hundred years before the birth of Christ a famous oracle had been established. During the classical period, it was believed to be the spot where Apollo despatched Python into a fissure in the rock and that furthermore Apollo spoke through this oracle there. Here the sibyl who was an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area would become intoxicated by the vapors emanating from the fissure. She would fall into a trance and allow Apollo to possess her spirit. Her ramblings would be divined by priests and the individual in search of his fate would receive advice. The foretelling of the oracle was frequently sought by the political leaders of Ancient Greece. In addition Delphi held games. Not as famous as the ones held at Olympia perhaps but they were popular. From 586 BC, every four years athletes from all over the Hellenic world would join in sporting events and musical competitions.
During their dig the two British archaeologists found a rock upon which was carved with a familir five-ringed insignia. The implications of their discovery of the Olympic rings at such an ancient site were surely huge. Until that time, it was commonly held that Pierre de Coubertin, the French pedagogue and founder of the Modern Olympics, had invented the insignia in 1912. Had the two British archaeologists discovered that the ancient Greeks and not Coubertin had come up with the five-ring device?
No they hadn’t. What the discovery did reveal was the degree to which the Olympic movement is based on the constant reinvention and restaging of our Classical past. The Torch Relay best illustrates this. The Germans invented this theatrical set piece, would be the British who would revive it in 1948 and turn it into one of the most precious of Olympic theatrical set pieces. It would also be the British which in 2008 would ultimately succumb to the racist proposition inherent in the event. With their focus on the ancient world, the British archaeologists had overlooked more recent events.
In 1934, the German sports administrator Carl Diem had visited ancient sites in Greece in his capacity as an organiser of the 1936 Olympic Games. Diem was one of the founding fathers of the Olympic movement. In 1906 Diem, then a middle-distance runner, had led out the German athletes at the so-called Intercalated Olympic Games, a commemoration of the first games held in 1896 but not an Olympics proper. From that time on, Diem had pursued the goal of hosting the Olympics in Germany. As part of the German Sports Authority for Athletics he received a promise from the International Olympic Committee that the Games would be held in Berlin in 1916. The First World War confounded his ambition and Germany was excluded from the Olympic movement in the 1920s. Diem however stuck doggedly to his task and in May 1932, again largely due to the reputation and lobbying efforts of Diem, Berlin was selected to host the 1936 summer games and Diem named as Secretary General of the Organizing Committee. Winning the chance to stage the games in his home was not however Diem’s greatest challenge.
In 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Initially, he was a critic of the Olympic movement. He asserted as late as 1932 that the Olympic movement was in the thrall of ‘Jews and freemasons.’ The Games were suspect and so was Diem whose wife was Jewish. In addition his assistant Theodor Lewald had a Jewish grandmother on his father’s side. And yet it was Diem and Lewald who convinced Goebbels that the iconography of the modern Games could promote one of the tenets of the Nazi theory of European history. These two sports administrators were aware that the German fascists linked their concept of the idealised German racial type with the Ancient Greeks. Hitler claimed that the Dorian tribe which had migrated into Greece from the north was of German origin; Nazi Germany in adopting neo-Dorian architecture was returning to its roots, he claimed. Goebbels hailed the Acropolis as the cradle of Germanic culture. In his book Olympia 1936, Nazi propagandist Willi Koenitzer asserts that Hercules the mythical founder of the ancient games belonged to the ‘nordic tribe of the Dorians.’
To persuade the Nazis of the merits of staging the Games, Diem needed to capture their imagination; better yet, he needed a coup de theatre, the Nazis themselves having staged many on the road to power. The idea of the Olympic Torch Relay was born. It was meant to express the migration of racial and cultural superiority from Ancient Greece to modern Germany. The theatre and symbolism of the torch relay is well known now, largely because it has been adapted and re-used throughout successive Olympic Games. In the 1930s, Diem had no model for the relay. He would have been aware that in the compound in Olympia where the main Games were held there was an eternal flame. It was kept burning in honour of the Greek goddess of the hearth Hestia and was used to light all the other sacrificial fires throughout the complex of temples around the original Olympic site. In addition, some ancient Greek cities features torch races as part of their local festivals. But within the highly religious and ceremonial Games of Ancient Greece there was no torch relay. Diem synthesised the relay from ancient texts with the goal of promoting German racial supremacy either overtly or through the supposed kinship with Ancient Greece.
The lighting ceremony is illustrative. Fifteen Greek women dressed in rough serge smocks entered the ruins of the ancient stadium at Olympia on July 20 1936. They gathered round a modern glass reflector made by the famous German firm Zeiss Optics which focused the heat of the noonday sun on a fagot topped with flammable material. They carried the torch to a German-made oil-filled brazier and chanted Pindar’s Olympic Hymn. This ceremony, mistaken in the the popular imagination for an ancient one, is still enacted every four years. The pseudo-paganism of the ceremony was underwritten the overt display of Germany’s manufacturing capabilities – the magnesium-fueled torches were constructed by the munitions manufacturer Krupp who would soon be an integral part of the German war effort. After lighting the torch in Olympia, Diem planned a short detour to the west of Athens to Delphi for another ceremony in the ancient stadium on Mount Parnussus.
As Olympic scholar Robert Barney writes: ‘Among Diem’s contrived theatrical props for the stadium ceremonies at Delphi was a rectangular, dressed block of stone, some 3 feet high. Etched into each of the four sides of the stone was chiselled the modern Olympic 5 ring symbol. The stone was placed on the ancient starting groove structures near the sphendome. After the ceremonies were concluded the torch runners departed for points north. But the stone remained in placed on the ancient starting line sills… for years.’ It was this stone that the British archaeologists discovered.
If only these archaeologists, whose names Barney does not record, had watched the film Olympia. Director Leni Riefenstahl’s film is a documentary of the Berlin games – and so much more. If the film is remembered today it is becaue of its use of the human body as a site for fascist propaganda, but Olympia has also done much to entrench the idea that the torch relay, and many other aspects of the modern Olympics are ancient traditions when in fact they are pieces of theatre designed to establish the Games in modern culture. In the opening section of the film the very stone that the archaeologists ‘discovered’ can be seen. Proof of an ancient past the rings? The rings were merely a prop in a film. The influence of Riefenstahl’s film on the Olympic movement can be seen in the manner that she was awarded special acknowledgement at the subsequent Games. The post-war Games continued the tradition of the torch relay, establishing this piece of Nazi propaganda as an integral part of the iconography of the Olympics. It is all the more astonishing given the fact that the next Olympic Games after Berlin were held 12 years and a world war later, in London. Surely the fact that the British had fought the Nazis for longer than any other nation during the Second World War they would have found the propaganda of Torch Relay repellent? But the British Olympic Association had other ideas.They retained the Torch relay and reinvented it for their own purposes.
Olympia has been controversial since it was first shown. Riefenstahl was at the very least a Nazi sympathizer. Originally she had trained as a dancer and worked for theatre impressario Max Reinhardt. She injured her knee in 1924 and became fascinated by film, particularly nature documentaries set in the Alps. She went on to direct a feature called Das Blaue Licht, a mysticised crypto-Wagnerian tale of a free spirited woman called Junta who lives on a mountain.
Riefenstahl herself played the part of Junta and the film featuers amazing sequences of her climbing mountainscapes, like those painted by Casper David Friedrich but in the moonlight. In one memorable sequence she is pursued in a mountain climb by a potential suitor whose limbs continually stretch out to make the ascent but also to reach the unattainable goal of the free spirited Junta – physical prowess in the pursuit of an ideal. Hitler was an admirer of the work. In 1932 though she heard Hitler speak and became an adherent. She wrote of the experience: “I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the Earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth”. She asked to meet Hitler and was offered the job of filming a rally at Nuremberg in 1933. Hitler liked her film enough to ask her to record another rally in Nuremberg in 1934. The result is The Triumph of the Will, a film stylised to the point of sculpture and a clear piece of Nazi propaganda. Olympia is often similarly dismissed but the film is more problematic and there are some that argue it transcends politics and is a work of art. Diem created the Torch Relay but it was Riefenstahl who imprinted it on our collective subconscious. Seen through her camera, the torch relay plays a couple of clever tricks on the viewer.
For the first time, the Games are no longer located in a single auditorium, we see their effect spilling out over Europe and the Olympic movement becomes a cause shared with the whole world. Diem successfully associated the Olympic spirit with Nazi goals. But once the Third Reich had fallen the Olympic genie was out of the bottle. To continue to exist it had to do more than simply animate an arena once every four years. That was surely what the founders would have wanted but in doing so, subsequent leaders of the Olympic movement paid a huge price. In Riefenstahl’s film the first change-overs are shown taking place in Greece. Riefenstahl uses a map of Europe to show the route of the torch. The terrain of Bulgaria gives way to a painted suggestion of Sofia. Belgrade in Yugoslavia appears as a city painted on the Danube. The cities become more fully depicted and illustrated as the torch gets closer to its destination. The camera flies over the bridges of Budapest. Cities cling to glistening rivers. The camera enters Vienna through a beautifully juxtaposed series of statues and art nouveau gates before heading onto the open plane in which Berlin stands. A stylised abstract Europe. Yet, as the writer Ian Sinclair has noted, ‘The map montage in which the torch crosses Europe, Olympia to Berlin, is like an invasion rehearsal.’
Riefenstahl’s camera accompanied the torch from Olympia all the way to Berlin. She would have seen the crowds in Vienna who greeted the flame in what was to all intents and purposes a Nazi rally. The crowds sang the Horst Wessel Lied as the torch arrived. She would have heard them sing the words that translated mean: ‘Clear the streets for the brown battalions / Clear the streets for the stormtroopers! / Already millions look with hope to the swastika / The day of freedom and bread is dawning!” Two years before the Anschluss that forcibly united Germany and Austria, the torch’s journey inspired what was to all and intents and purposes a Nazi in the heart of the Vienna. Although an early Nazi supporter, the right wing politician Vice-Chancellor Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg had grown disillusioned. When the torch arrived in Vienna, he was the second most powerful man in Austria, a nationalist but one who was fighting to keep Austria an independent state. He was fervently opposed Austrian Nazis and their support of a union with Germany. He conveyed the torch into a city that he was losing control of. ‘When I reached the Ringstrasse, I felt I should never get through. The path had narrowed still further. The light of the streetlamps fell upon faces filled with hatred and distorted by shouting.’ Goebbels demanded that this should be played down. ‘The use of the Olympic flame for political purposes is exceptionally regrettable,’ he said.
The montage sequence in which painted backdrops evoke Eastern European capital cities, elides this episode. The lingering shots that revel on the beauty of the athletes’ body make a strange claim: you are watching art, it says, not sport, and not politics. It removes the political context and replaces it instead with the aesthetics of the body beautiful. The film montages a link between the statuary of Ancient Greece and the figure of the contemporary athlete. This had long been done in print form, particularly in the official posters of the Olympic Games. The poster for the 1924 Games in Paris shows contemporary athletic figures emerging from a laurel wreath in the pose of ancient statues. The most telling moment comes when an image of the Discobolus of Myron bleeds into a shot of the German decathlete Erwin Huber in action. The Discobolus of Myron was cast in bronze around 460-450 BC. It is known mainly though Roman copies, most famously the Palombara Discobolus which is a copy of Myron’s original bronze made in the first century AD; it was the first copy of this famous sculpture to have been discovered, in 1781. So taken with it was Hitler, he negotiated to buy the statue from the Italians in 1937. In 1938 Galeazzo Ciano, Minister of Foreign Affairs, sold it to him for five million lire, over the protests of Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of Education, and the scholarly community. It was shipped by rail to Munich and displayed in the Glyptothek.
Olympia plays a double role. On the surface, the sequence creates an innocent link between sport, its timelessness and its communal aspect. However, in doing so, the film encourages the viewer to enjoy the spectacle of sport aesthetically rather than interpreting it politically. This elision explains why commentators often find Riefenstahl’s film a problem. She convinces us that what we are looking at is art rather than a report of a sporting competition or a documentary about a politically charged event. She makes us think we are engaging in an aesthetic act. What she is in fact doing is encourgaing the viewer to enjoy the body as a political ideal. The pastoral tone of the section in the athletes’ village, with naked hunks in a sauna, is not simply a sweat-sleek lesson in body fascism. It’s a moment of seduction, a means of convincing us that Olympianism is not a political movement or a movement that can been co-opted for political reasons but an aesthetic movement with its roots in pre-history. It is propaganda of a new, insidious variety. It should be remembered that at the time of the making of the film the Nazis were not preoccupied with agressiviely promoting their ideology as an international threat. Indeed in the face of a potential boycott by the United States Athlets Federation, Carl Diem and his assistant Lewald with their Jewish connections were used to persuade the world the purpose of the Olympics was to convince the World that the Nazis meant no harm. Throughout the Games, anti-semitic signage was removed and propaganda was suppressed. The Nazi regime apologised for the way in which the torch became imbroiled in the rally in Vienna.
As far as Goebbels was concerned Olympia was not propagandist enough. He rejected the first cut of the film and according to Riefenstahl herself, Olympia was only rescued by her direct request to Hitler who sanctioned the cut that Riefenstahl delivered. Given the degree to which Diem’s set piece was an expression of Nazi self-image, one would expect 1936 to be the beginning of the Torch Relay rather than the end. After the war Riefenstahl might have been in disgrace, but Olympia’s imagery remained potent. Minutes of the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games 1948 recorded that: ‘Despite the unpleasant associations with Nazi propaganda, the London committee decided that the torch relay was a ‘tradition’ and as such worth keeping.’ It wasn’t a tradition, and its orgins lay in Nazi propaganda. In terms of Olympic pageantry and propaganda, it is the great question: why did the British Olympic committee choose to keep the Torch Relay? Some indication remains from the debate that took place in 1948 over who was to carry the torch into Wembley on its final journey. As Bob Philips has recorded in his book The 1948 Olympics: How London Rescued the Games, a leader writer in The Times, related : “ even among those who have not become, to use an almost unavoidable phrase, Olympic-minded, there is one event in the Games which as captured the imagination, the carrying of the lighted torch from distant Olympia to the Stadium at Wembley.’ The article concluded that there was only one individual that the country wanted to see finishing the Relay. Sydney Wooderson, although he had recently retired, was Britain’s most famous track athlete; a former record holder in the 800 yards and the mile and winner of the 800m and the 5000m at the European Championships in 1946. Wooderson had been told he would be granted this honour. However, unbeknownst to him, the organising committee of the Olympic Games had decided he wasn’t appropriate and had approached John Mark, an athlete who was not even in the British team. He was, however, a president of the Cambridge University Athletic Club, as had been Lord Burghley, who was the chairman of the London Olympic Games Organising Committee. And he was also tall and blond, physically almost identical to the athlete who had run the final length of the Berlin torch relay. Wooderson was small, balding and bespectacled and as Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother put it at the time, ‘we couldn’t have had poor little Sydney doing it’.
The organisers of the London event were seduced by Riefenstahl’s imagery. The British establishment, whose values informed the Olympic movement at an early stage, were no strangers to co-opting the iconography of the classical athletic form. The frenchman Baron de Coubertin, ostensible founder of the modern Olympics had closely studied the English public school system, whose values in academic terms were founded upon the studying of the classics, Ancient Greek and Latin, and in extra-curricula terms on collective physical endeavor, particularly through sport. The London Olympics of 1948, were a determined attempt to reassert Britain’s inheritance of Classicism. The official poster of the event superimposes a figure of Hitler’s cherished Discobolus of Myron on to an image of Big Ben. After the war the Palombara Discobolus was taken from the Germans and returned to Rome. At this point, and thanks to the British, the Discobolus assumes a political aspect which must have operated on an almost subconscious level. The Palombara Discobulus was not the only version of the statue in circulation. In 1790 a second copy of the sculpture had been excavated at Hadrian’s Villa. English connoisseur Charles Townley bought the statue soon after and had the head restored, wrongly as it turned out. The head of the discus thrower in the Townley Discobulus faces the opposite way to the original and other Roman copies such as the Palombara.
The Townley Discobolus though became the British Discobolus when in the late 18th century, it was bought by the British Museum where it still stands today. It was also this version of the statue that was drawn as the poster of the London Games. We often think of the period immediately after the Second World War as a time of unbridled modernity. We think of Attlee’s government and its great reforming programme. We also think of the Festival of Britain in 1951 in which architects and designers expressed their vision of a modern democratic nation. In the 1948 Olympics by contrast we see the British establishment re-asserting its ownership of antiquity after an unseemly spell when the Germans had co-opted it. The British restaged the Nazi-created ceremony because they understood the signficance of controlling antiquity. Although it was drawing to a close by 1948, the Empire was founded on the ideals of sound administrative skills developed through the programmatic study of classical languages paired with athleticism undertaken in a collective fashion. Watching the film of the Torch Relay in 1948, made some 12 years after Riefenstahl’s film took these images to the World for the first time, one can see the British establishment reacquainting itself with its own self-created lineage back to Ancient Greece. The film is much shorter, less comprehensive than Riefenstahl’s. It does without the extravagant opening sequence whose visuals carried the argument of the Games as being outside history and politics.
But then it doesn’t need to make that case. Diem’s ceremony and Riefenstahl’s film has already done it well enough. The Ancient Games were an integral part of a religious festival. Athletes and spectators communed with the gods through performing and witnessing great athletic feats. The Modern Games meanwhile are enjoyed with individuals with a differing set of beliefs. Part of the essential programme of every one of the Modern Olympics games is to reinvent the idea behind a production called The Olympic Games. This was a film of the 1948 relay is shot on colour rather than black and white film. It restages the theatrical events, the lighting of the torch and the scenes of semi-naked men running through ruins. One shot shows a figure almost obscured by the dusk carrying a torch through the hills of Greece. It is Riefenstahl redux and reduced –a sleight-of-hand using the iconography of the Games.
All images are from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and feature in the left hand corner a reflection of the lamp in my front room.