Editorial by John Ziegler

The Eternal Flame of Silliness


Human beings have often been described as "meaning making machines." There may be no greater example of mankind's need to create significance where none appears to exist than the Olympic Torch Relay, which recently came through our area while slowly winding its way towards Salt Lake City for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

To many, the Olympic Torch Relay embodies the lighting of the enduring human spirit and the uniting of a community for a common cause. To me, the relay represents the gullibility and silliness of our species.

For those unfamiliar with the Torch Relay, months before a new Olympics is to begin a sanctified ceremony is held in Olympia, Greece. There, the "high priestess" uses a parabolic mirror to kindle a flame from the heat of the Sun. The lighted torch is then carried across Greece to Athens where the "sacred" flame is handed over to the host committee for use at the next Olympiad.

In the modern era of the Olympics the host countries have created a grand spectacle out of the process of getting the flame to its final destination. Carrying the lighted torch has become a great "honor" and the identity of the person who eventually starts the new Olympic flame is kept top secret to heighten the anticipation for the opening ceremonies. During the last two summer Olympics athletes from ethnicities who had been legally discriminated against in the host countries were granted the privilege of igniting the final flame. Their participation in the event proved to be both a dramatic highlight for the games as well as a symbol of racial healing.

While the romance of the Olympic Torch Relay is indeed alluring, like many traditions that evolve to take on an almost religious stature, the facts simply do not justify the reverence in which the ritual is held. Quite simply, the Olympic Torch Relay has become as commercialized, bloated, distorted, abused, mythologized, and meaningless as the games themselves.

How many people (even among the hundreds of thousands who watch and participate in the traffic-snarling, police-overtime-sapping experience) realize that the Torch Relay is not "ancient" at all? In fact, not only is it a creation of the modern Olympics, it was first produced for the 1936 summer games in Berlin as a propaganda device for Hitler's Nazi Germany. Somehow, this little piece of reality conveniently fails to make it into most of the relay's promotional material.

Also, while many of those who carry the torch are indeed "honored" invitees (especially in this the year of 9/11), the vast majority of runners end up paying for the "prize" of transporting the sacred flame all of .2 miles on its 13,000 mile trip across the country. But, even those who pay outrageous prices for the right to take home their torch or even for an official photo of them having carried it, do not even get close to the "real" Olympic flame. Because the "sanctified" flame has a nasty habit of extinguishing itself quite often along its lengthy journey, the "core" flame is kept away from public display and interaction.

Of course, since fire is a gas, even the "real" flame has little or no real physical relationship to the "original" flame and, even if it did, what is so special about a fire started on a mountain in Greece? I thought most of us stopped believing in Greek Gods centuries ago!

The most galling aspect of the awe in which the relay is held is that the Olympics itself has become so utterly corrupt. The last time (probably forever) that an Olympics was held, as was the purpose of its existence, largely free of professionalism and political boycott was way back in the glorious Lake Placid winter games of 1980. Since then, most of the star athletes have openly received considerable payments sanctioned by the games, and the Olympics have become a monstrosity of commercial excess. NBC has paid billions for the exclusive Olympic TV rights, the games have sold product attachment rights to everyone from PowerBar to Pfizer, and even the relay has three major corporate sponsors this time around. Meanwhile, it appears as if these Salt Lake City games where acquired the old fashioned way: with bribes.

While money is certainly a sad and corrosive part of almost all 21st century athletics, at least most other sporting events do not attempt to pretend that they are something that they are not in such a pretentious and hypocritical manner. For the degraded and tarnished Olympics to still expect to receive (and be essentially granted) the privileges of its alleged former virginity is as absurd and exasperating as Madonna insisting on wearing all white at her next wedding.

I have always marveled at how so many institutions that have been utterly discredited are still provided the trappings and respect of their prior position of esteem (local newscasters, professional wrestlers, actors, defense attorneys, and radio talk show hosts come quickly to mind as those who benefit most from this phenomenon). It seems that, much like Dorothy in the "Wizard of OZ," we so want to believe in the magical powers of the wizard that we "forget" that we have already discovered that he is just a feeble old man behind a curtain. When it comes to the Olympic Torch Relay, that former wizard is laughing at us all the way to the bank.

source:<a href="http://dailynews.philly.com/content/daily_news/2002/01/07/opinion/OLYM07E.htm">The way that this column appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News</a>

Return to Editorials >>

Search JohnZiegler.com