The opening of the Olympic Games serves as probable proof that sport is the de facto religion of the modern western world. It has it all — pageantry, cult, a powerful priesthood, costumery, processions, hymns, acolytes, and an official mythology, not to mention power, money, and corruption. It’s enough the make a Renaissance pope envious. The opening (and closing) ceremonies at Beijing four years ago were a truly amazing spectacle and London promises to do its best to keep the pace up. On Friday morning, bells tolled throughout the land, millions of people began the trek toward the various venues, and eyes throughout the world are beginning to focus on the grand inauguration.
Curiously (especially given the English venue this year) the Olympic Torch itself is a relatively modern addition. Innocuously pagan, the ignition of the torch that is relayed in various ways from Olympia, Greece to the location of the opening ceremonies, is attended by eleven women representing the “Vestal Virgins” who kept the sacred fire of the goddess Hestia perpetually burning. Never mind that Vestal Virgins were Roman. It’s the symbolism that counts. The Romans were never great fans of the Games anyway, and it was a Christian Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, who brought them to an end in the late fourth century. They were not revived until 1896. The ceremonial flame was not introduced until 1928. So much for ancient history.
The torch and its long relay has a more interesting history, being a thoroughly modern touch introduced by the Nazis under the beady eyes of Joseph Goebbels for the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler hoped to bolster his claims for a link to ancient Greece for propaganda purposes. When protests erupted along the route through Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, they were suppressed by “security forces.” How times have changed. (I’m not making this up, you know: you can read all about it on Wikipedia.)
So as the torch is finally brought to the stadium on Friday and the great cauldron is lit, pause for a moment and consider the ironies of history. Or just call it revenge.