I’ve been throwing ideas around lately to all kinds of people. They haven’t stuck, which is too bad. But one of them was to look at the history of the torch relay after reports that the IOC and Britain may forgo the tradition in the runup to the 2012 games. I kind of knew the answer to the question about how the modern torch relay started, but the LA Times editorial page beat me to it:
The Olympic torch relay was invented by the Nazis. According to historians, Adolf Hitler wanted to promote his belief in an Aryan master race by symbolically linking the 1936 Berlin Games to the ancient Greek gods and rituals, hence the carrying of the flame from Olympia to Germany. The first relay was chronicled on film by Hitler’s propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl.
We bring you this brief history lesson because, as the Olympic torch makes its only North American appearance today in San Francisco, it will be met by thousands of protesters decrying China’s human rights record. In response to similar demonstrations Monday in Paris, the Chinese government complained that a “small group” of Tibetan activists was seeking to politicize an event that should have been a tribute to the love of sport.
Nonsense. From its very beginning, the torch relay has been deeply political, a promotional extravaganza for the Games’ host country. Chinese officials are well aware of this, having designed the longest relay in Olympic history — an 85,000-mile, six-continent tour, meant to highlight China’s vast economic and political might. The protests are a welcome reminder to Beijing that it can’t tailor public opinion in the rest of the world the way it can at home.