From Berlin to Beijing

The tradition of the Olympic torch relay is not ancient and has nothing to do with Greece. It was in fact an invention of the Third Reich

As the Olympic torch unsteadily flickers on its divisive “Journey of Harmony” towards Beijing, there are many who assert that China has perverted the meaning of this seemingly ancient Olympic tradition. These detractors may have a point. However, the tradition of the torch relay is not ancient and has nothing to do with Greece. It was in fact an invention of the Third Reich.

Although the Nazis did not invent the Olympic torch – it burned for the first time at the IXth Modern Olympics in Amsterdam in 1928 – they dreamed up the relay for the Berlin Games of 1936. The man behind it was Carl Diem, one of the Games’ organisers, who came up with the idea while he and his colleague, Theodor Lewald, were on a train to Greece in 1934. Diem envisaged the relay as a vivid way to link Nazi Berlin with the original Games of Classical Greece, whose culture the Führer greatly admired.

The first torch relay proved to be no less controversial than the one we are currently witnessing. As the torch, forged from the same Krupp steel that would be used to build Hitler’s panzers, made its way north, it became a magnet for Nazis and their sympathisers. In Vienna, for example, the resulting demonstrations were far bigger than the ones we saw in London, Paris and San Francisco.

The Germans were proud of their idea – so much so that Lewald upbraided Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, for not giving the host nation credit. “I cannot hide from you my extreme surprise,” wrote Lewald, “that you have not given a single mention of the fact that the idea for the torch relay is a purely German idea.” To add further irony, it was Diem who addressed thousands of Hitler Youth in the Olympic stadium in March 1945, calling on them to show “Olympic spirit” by refusing to capitulate to the Russians. As an extra incentive, execution stakes had been erected around the stadium to inspire any boys who did not feel “Olympic” enough. Two thousand of those he addressed that day were killed before the end of the war, less than two months later.

Nevertheless, the Germans honoured Diem by putting his face on a postage stamp in 1968. That’s the great thing about Olympism – it’s not just about being faster, higher, stronger, but also about forgetting.

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