As the organisers of the London Olympics propose ever more stupid stunts that the Olympic Torch must perform during the Olympic torch relay – zip-wire over the Tyne, abseiled down a tower in Grimbsy, taken in a steamer across Lake Windemere, we should wonder why it is being kept so busy. As it is being shown a good time round the tourist spots of the United Kingdom no doubt being fed traditional ice-cream all the way, perhaps we should reflect on quite why the torch is being given a stay-cation rather than a holiday abroad.
Take a look at a map of the torch relay route and you may be surprised for not noticing one important fact. It is only being run in the UK. This is very rare in Olympic history: a host nation generally allows the torch to be run through different countries, other than Greece before it arrives in the host city. This has come to symbolise a degree of fraternity amongst nations, but which due to important historic reasons is fraught with tension. As we consider why the Torch Relay for the 2012 Games is being run solely within the UK, it is worth remembering a couple of things: 1. The relay was devised by the Nazis and born from a racist and aggressively expansionist world-view. 2. Despite the more peaceful world we live in the Torch Relay continues to be problematic and before the Athens Olympics in 2004 proved to be hugely problematic because of a racial dimension.
In 2008 the International Olympic Committee already highly sensitised to criticism of it which had racial overtones ran its last international torch relay i.e. a relay that passes from Olympia through a number of foreign territories before arriving at the host city. One cannot help but wondering what Kevan Gosper thought when was given the task as Head of IOC’s press commission to defend the torch relay in 2008. In 2004, he had accept an invitation on behalf of his daughter to run a leg of the relay extended by the organisers of the Greek games, in place of another Australian girl of Greek extraction. Both the invitation and his acceptance were construed as having over racial overtones.
Yet on April 11 2008, Gosper was defending the relay on the 7.30 Report on ABC in Australia saying that: ‘the torch stands for goodwill, international understanding, celebration of the Games’. He stated that it should not be the focus of protests against China. Yet as we saw here in London, the Torch ceased to represent the Olympics and was identified with China.
It is certainly easier to credit now but anti-Chinese sentiment at the time of the Torch Relay was strong in the UK. Certainly there were very real disagreement with China’s occupation of Tibet at the time but a general feeling of unease went further. At the time, the general economic strength of the country was seen as a growing threat. Just as the Chinese saw the Olympics as a means of showing their new economic confidence in a benign way, so the West, in particular, saw it as a sign of the threat of China. Criticisms of China’s role in Tibet often slipped into sinophobia. To environmentalists, China’s industrialisation became the focus of excessive criticism from Western countries who were just as guilty of polluting the atmosphere. Everything from the air quality in Beijing to the amount of steel used in the National Stadium became a stick with which to beat the Chinese. More explicit criticism was made of China’s role in funding Janjaweed militia forces in Darfur in Sudan.
The Olympics became embroiled in this. Writing in The Guardian early in 2008, Simon Tisdall invoked the ghost of the Berlin Olympics by stating that ‘not since the prewar era have the games assumed such a key role in the assertion of the virility, potential, and sense of entitlement of a nation reborn.’ Tisdall went on to say that the Olympics structures are ‘deliberate architectural projections of national power.’ (If you take one thing from this blog, it is that EVERY Games involves an assertion of the virility, potential and sense of entitlement of a nation reborn’ and that EVERY Olympic structure is a deliberate projection of national power whether it is done overtly or not.) Nothing shows how protests against the Chinese were based not on pro-Tibetan or pro-democratic sentiment on anti-Chinese feeling than the response to the earthquake in Sichuan. On May 12 an a quake measuring 8.0 on the richter scale hit Wenchuan County in Sichuan province killing around 70,000 people. For China it was a tragedy. For the International Olympics Committee it changed everything.
On 23 May 2008, USA Today reported that ‘China’s deadly earthquake may have saved the Beijing Olympics.’ Quoted in the article was Gerhard Heiberg, a member of the IOC’s executive board member and its marketing director.‘I’m sorry to say it, but this [the Sichuan earthquake] has turned things around,’ he said. And indeed as images of devastated areas of Sichuan were broadcast around the world and president Hu Jintao made great capital of going to the quake region, protests about. China’s state-controlled media allowed uncharacteristic openness and permitted 24-hour earthquake coverage. The Chinese government drew praise for its quick earthquake response.
On May 20, the Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Zamiska interviewed Jill Savitt, director of Dream for Darfur campaign which had been protesting China’s support of the Sudanese government. “The tone of advocacy has to change because of the earthquake,” she said. “It would really be unwise and unstrategic to continue to pound on China and not to realize that there have been hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed and wounded. It would be foolhardy.” Gosper, the poor Australian who was destined to watch as the real world crashed into the Torch Relay, cautioned that the IOC “in principle tried to avoid ceremonial events referring to tragedies around the world.” However, given that he’d had such a hard time keeping the issue of Tibet out of the Torch Relay, he seemed to relent a little. “On such an issue that has affected a host country, I believe that the president of the IOC would have a very open mind and listen to the advice coming from Beijing organizers,’ he told the Associated Press. As it was Lin Hao, a nine year old from Yingxiu in Wenchuan County led the Chinese national team in and no explicit reference was made in the Opening Cermony. But by that time the damage had been done. It wasn’t until March the following year that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) scrapped international relays. By that stage organisers of the 2012 London Olympics have already said they had no plans to take the torch outside Britain. “We have always said the primary focus would be on a domestic torch relay whose main purpose is to excite and inspire the UK in the build-up to the games. We planned to take our lead from the IOC and are very happy with this decision as it mirrors what we were intending to do,” said a London 2012 spokeswoman. At this stage the IOC made a strange claim. IOC executive director Gilbert Felli told the BBC that: “After the (2004) relay in Athens, which was the first international relay,we came to the conclusion it was easier for the torch to stay inside the (host) country.’ [My emphasis]
Totally untrue of course. As we have seen the Torch Relay was created as an international event. Without a shred of irony, the Official Report to the Games of 1948 notes that: “In September, 1946, the Organising Committee decided that the lighting of the Sacred Fire should be carried out by a Torch kindled in the traditional manner at Olympia, in Greece, and carried by relays of runners across Europe to London.” Owing to the armed struggle against Communist insurgents in the north of Greece the flame went from Olympia to the coast at Katakolon, thence by Greek warship to the island of Corfu. From Corfu which had become a centre for British operations in the Mediterranean during the recent war, H.M.S. Whitesand Bay, a frigate of the Mediterranean Fleet, carried the Flame to Bari in Italy from whence it was run through, Foggia, Pescara, Ancona, Rimini, Bologna, Parma, Piacenza and Milan. Then the flame was run through Switzerland into France to Poligny, Nancy and Metz, then Luxembourg, Belgium and back into France to Lille and finally Calais. It was carried across the channel on a destroyer called. H.M.S. Bicester which had harried and destroyed Italian submarines and German U-boats in the Mediterranean throughout the war. The British made certain that the Torch Relay was run through the lands in Europe which their armies had only recently liberated from fascism. If Lene Riefenstahl’s film had shown the torches progress through the Balkans, as Ian Sinclair puts it, like ’an invasion rehearsal’, the British ran it through the same lands like a second victory parade. Far from being dominated by an idea of austerity as the BBC suggests here, the second torch relay was all about triumphalism.
Each organising committee had chosen the route for its relay and an international route communicates a narrative of national identity very clearly, in a negative way or a positive one. For the Mexico City Olympics the Torch folowed the course of Columbus`s first voyage to the New World, ‘thus’, according to the offical report, ‘symbolizing the union of the classic cultures of the Mediterranean with those of America’. The three principal intermediate points along the Route of the Torch were Genoa, Italy, birthplace of Christopher Columbus; Palos, Spain, the port from which he embarked on his first voyage of discovery; and the island of San Salvador, where he first touched in the New World. The torch arrived in Barcelona in Spain by sea and was then run 1,286 kilometres across Spain to Palos. A man caled Cristóbal Colón Carbajal, a direct descendant of Columbus, carried it on the last leg.
The overall length for the Torch Relay route for the Moscow Games in 1980 was 5,000 km including 1,170 in the territory of Greece, 935 in Bulgaria, 593 in Romania and 2,302 in the USSR. This had the added bonus of promoting communist solidarity with its south-western neighbours. Open athletics events were organised along the route to coincide with the torches arrival. Around the burner for the torch the words “Olympia-Athens-Sofia- Bucharest-Moscow” were worked in metal. For other Olympics such as 1976 in Montreal or 1984 in Los Angeles, it was just run within the nation hosting the Games only. This appears to have been through no other reason than it offering an opportunity to raise the profile of the coming event within the host nation – to drum up a few ticket sales and, certainly in the latter case, increase the revenue from sponsorship. From now on this will be the case for all Games. What has happened to the Relay is that the original intension of the Relay to prove the hegemony of the nation to which the torch is being run, had been placed back on it, by protestors. Carl Diem and Leni Riefenstahl wanted to show that the culture of the Ancient Greeks was being adopted by the Third Reich. I don’t believe the Chinese Government were trying to do anything as crass. And yet that is exactly what protestors believed the Chinese goverment were doing reacted to it accordingly. They were only able to have an impact because the way in which this setpiece, originally created for film, was recorded. Rolling news made a pageant derived from classical sculpture into a painfully long, event that is impossible to defend from intervention by individual agents and therefore impossible to choreograph. And if you can’t choreograph something, you can’t control its meaning.
The Olympic flame will arrive in the UK on Friday 18 May 2012 and will travel around the UK for 70 days, arriving in London the weekend before the 2012 Games begin. 95 per cent of the UK population to be within a one hour journey time of the Torch Relay and it will visit every local authority. 8,000 torch bearers will be selected with over half of the places expected to go to young people. Sebastian Coe, Chair of LOCOG said: ‘The London 2012 Torch Relay will connect people and places; young people to sport and the UK to the rest of the world. We will be working closely with villages, towns and cities the length and breadth of the UK to ensure that as each community welcomes the Olympic Flame, they do so in a way that is unique and special to their area.’ Martin Green head of ceremonies at LOCOG has privately said, that the Olympic relay doesn’t need to be held throughout the world because we have all the nations of the world here in the UK, which is, to be generous, evasive.
The real reason we are not holding the Olympic Torch relay is because the International Olympic Committee are scared that everyone else in the world will express their feelings about the UK in the same way some of us expressed our displeasure at the Chinese through the agency of the torch relay. The degree to which LOCOG is controlling the image of the UK abroad is setting whole new standards within the Olympic movement.
This is part IV of an investigation into the history of the Torch Relay.