Friday, April 11, 2008

An Adventure in Symbology, Part 1: THE FLAME

The Olympics Games are at their core a display of superb athleticism, clearly, but their mission is to serve a far loftier goal. The Olympics symbolize peace and international cooperation, and it has totally worked! Since 1896 we haven't had any global conflicts! ...Or, like, two World Wars. But let's leave that discussion for a later date, for today-- the Olympic Flame made its way to Argentina!

Each Olympic Season, the Torch is lit in Ancient Olympia in a very strange ceremony involving solar power and togas. No, really...

Back in the back in the day, in Ancient Greece, the Olympics were a time of relative peace in a violent world. (You've seen 300, right? It was like that, only without the loin cloths.) During the games, the Greek equivalents of the IOC would light a flame in front of Hera's temple that would burn throughout the games as a sign of peace.

Apparently, flames in front of temples were kind of like voicemail back then:
"Yo, you want to invade Athens?"
"Uhhh... I think I saw the Hera Torch was lit yesterday. Let me check... yup. No, no fighting for at least another couple days."
"Dammit! I was really looking forward to crushing the Athenians today."
"Patience, Leonidas. Tomorrow is another day. Our slaughter can wait until they're done with the naked wrestling."
"Oooh. Want to go watch?"
"Hell yes!"

The first modern torch relay was during the 1936 Olympics, better known as the Olympics Hitler Hosted and Jesse Owens Did That Thing At. A German history professor (named Carl Diem) decided it would be a good idea to bring the torch back. Because you know what the games were missing? Fire.

When I was a kid, I had this idea that the torch was carried on foot all the way around the world. When I learned otherwise, a little bit of me was crushed. I mean, I knew that runners couldn't actually run across the ocean, but I thought it was possible that it would be carried everywhere, by foot, relayed from cancer survivor to middle school teacher in a big fluffy burning symbolic gesture of togetherness. Of course that's not true. It took Phileas Fogg eighty days to circle the globe, after all, and he didn't have a torch to bear. Well, not a physical one anyway.

Instead, the Olympics is a fan of using a mix of conventional transportation (like boats, trains, and buses) and really weird transportation (like dog sled. Or Rube Goldberg Machine). For example, in 2000, the torch was carried over the Barrier Reef. And by over, I mean in the water. Submerged, but designed to stay lit. Perhaps the most ridiculous stretch of the term "relay" was in 1976, where the flame "was transformed into a radio signal," and then, according to Wikipedia, broadcast via satellite over to Canada, where it activated a laser to reignite the flame.

Canadians are crazy.

This year, the relay has already been in some trouble. Everywhere it travels, the Free Tibet protesters try to, um, protest it. The routes it traveled had to be altered in San Francisco, it had to be whisked away in a bus in France, and someone actually managed to extinguish the flame in London. (So much for ever-burning symbol of peace and cooperation...)

But that's not all! It is slated to make stops all over, including in Pyongyang, Dar Es Salaam, and (this will be awkward) Tibet. Seriously, the torch is going over Everest. Which is conveniently located within the most controversial topic of the Beijing Olympics. Awesome.

Look at it go! Whee!

So, will the torch continue to be a symbol of international peace and unity? Or will it become the symbol of China's unhealthy relationship with human rights? Stay tuned!

Coming Up:
Why Are So Many People Angry at China?
Political Protests and the Olympics

"Greeks test Beijing torch lighting." 3 March 2008.
"How Olympic Torches Work."
"Olympic Flame."
Olympics. Chris Oxlade and David Ballheimer.
"Argentine Torch Relay Unhindered." 11 April 2008.


Emily said...

I don't think you're allowed to just namedrop things like "Olympic Torch By Rube Goldberg Machine" and not follow it up with a story. You're going to have to start footnoting these.

I was kind of crushed when I learned that the torch relay isn't *really* a torch relay...although the bit about the underwater Barrier Reef thing made me wonder if in 2012 London's going to go for a repeat of the millennium and light the Thames on fire. I think that'd be pretty cool.

Lex said...

I know! I was crushed when I figured out the relay thing, and that was an embarrassingly short time ago. I hope London sets the river on fire! It's awesome!