A Brief History of Olympic Flames

As has been widely reported, Beijing’s Olympic torch was carted off in a van under police escort in Paris on Monday, and was similarly diverted away from public protests in San Francisco on Wednesday. The image of a Parisian (or Californian) mob threatening to extinguish the Olympic torch in the name of human rights calls to mind the portentous manning of barricades in the name of human rights in that same city: in 1789, and again in 1968. But the Olympic connection is new, and it has a subtly religious texture quite probably lost on most of us, especially the most aggressively secular heirs to the French Revolution. For the Olympics are deeply and abidingly religious. They always have been.

First, then, to the historical facts. The Olympic Games were an essential part of a religious festival sponsored every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. These Games lasted for more than a millennium, recurring almost without interruption on each Olympiad at the same spot. The Games were always taken to be religious (of the pagan sort, naturally). So it was that Christians, shortly after taking power definitively in the Roman Empire in 380 CE, saw fit to close the Olympic sanctuary and thus to end the Games (accomplished by the Edict of Theodosius in 393 CE).

And then, amazingly, after a 1500-year hiatus, the Olympic Games were revived by a French nobleman named Pierre de Coubertin who did it (écrasez l’infâme !) quite explicitly in the name of religion. More specifically, Coubertin saw his Olympic revival as an essential part of the widespread desire to create new religious forms more in tune with modern sentiments. It wasn’t “muscular Christianity,” exactly, but it was emphatically physical, and it was kind of pagan too. So the Olympics were religious at their inception, shut down due to religious conflict, then revived for religious reasons.

The secret to any such revival of an ancient religious form in the modern age is that such things will always be more modern than they are ancient. We are modern people, after all; Coubertin freely admitted as much. So the trick to analyzing the Olympics as modern ritual and as modern religion (not to mention as social performance) is to track simultaneously how they are similar and how they are dissimilar to their ancient counterparts.

As far as the flame goes, they are notably dissimilar. The ancient Olympic Games were always held at the same spot every four years. Yet it was an article of faith to Coubertin (and he faced bitter resistance to the notion) that the modern Olympics needed to move every four years, that they could not and should not belong to any one city or nation. He called them “ambulatory” Games. And it was their very quality as a “moveable feast” that first generated the idea of the Olympic flame.

It is a potent symbol, indeed, by far the most popular and recognizable ritual moment in all of the Games. Seven priestesses are appointed in Greece for each modern Olympiad. They gather in the heart of the excavated sanctuary of Olympia called the Altis, and they use a parabolic mirror to cultivate Olympic flame out of Greek sunlight. And then that fire is carried from its sacred Olympian source to the soon-to-be host city. This has been done in many different ways (perhaps the oddest being Montreal’s decision in 1976 to set up an electronic link and thus, merely by pushing a button in Greece, to kindle a fire in Canada).

But who came up with this idea? Not Coubertin, and not the French. No, the Olympic flame was invented by none other than the Nazis, no strangers to the power of ritual in the mass. The modern Olympic flame was first cultivated at the Altis of Olympia in 1936, then carried overland by runners from Greece to Germany (the event in Leni Reifenstahl’s famous film, Olympia). Coubertin, for whom Berlin was to be the last Olympiad, loved the idea. It captured much of what he was after with his revival. But after the war that followed so tragically and so soon, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needed to detach the flame from its historical origins if they wanted to maintain it as a potent symbol of peace.

And it remains such a symbol today, which is precisely why it became a focus of social protest. But a symbol of what? Tellingly, Coubertin could never say with clarity, whereas he was wonderfully eloquent about most other aspects of his revival. But this question cut to the very heart of his movement. If the modern Olympic revival was a religious one, and if he intended to create new religious rituals and symbols more suited to modern sentiments, then did this new religion consist of? Coubertin offered many suggestions over the years, none very definitive. He spoke of the way that peace had “become a sort of religion among us” in the period between the wars. And he believed, as the ancient Greeks did, that the surest way to avoid explosions of physical violence was to ritualize athletic competition that imitated it in ways both large and small.

The flame, in many ways, was the perfect symbol; the centerpiece of the ancient Olympics was also non-athletic, and it also involved a flame. On the day before the competition began, the priests at Olympia offered up a hecatomb, a grisly and impressive ritual slaughter of 100 large animals. Some of the meat was then served at a sacred feast. The modern Games have captured a similar ritual moment with a flame, yet notably without a sacrifice. Or rather, the modern sacrifice has been internalized as so much modern religiosity has been, in terms of peacefulness, of international harmony, of honor and fair play; of the great personal sacrifices to which all the competitors submit. So the sacrifice, like much modern spiritual geography, is now internal.

Except when it’s not.

Given that religion and politics are joined at the hip (in the ancient and the modern Olympics, alike), eruptions of the Parisian and Californian sort we’ve seen over the past few days are bound to recur. One thinks of the African-American protests in 1968 (and we tend to forget the hundreds of nonviolent protestors killed by government forces just weeks before the Mexico City Games began). We think of boycotts in Moscow in 1980, and Los Angeles in 1984, and the debates roiling as we speak. The simple fact is that religious rituals, events, and religious symbols are powerful magnets for intense political protest, and even for physical violence. They always have been, and probably always will be. The famous 2nd-century Roman travel writer, Pausanias, reported that the desiccated corpse of an armored hoplite was found in the rafters of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia when it was re-roofed, indicating that there were actually pitched battles waged inside the sanctuary in antiquity. The modern Olympics have also often been sucked into that same vortex, wittingly or no, in the short 108-year compass of their history.

There were instructive debates about the relevance of the modern Olympics posed in the immediate aftermath of both World Wars. The forces of war had proven stronger than the forces of peace, it was felt, since the Olympic Games had been canceled in 1916, 1940, and 1944. Perhaps there was no point to their revival. But each time, in the aftermath of war, the Games returned, returned to the very places most ravaged by those wars: to Antwerp in 1920, and to London in 1948.

In all of this, Coubertin’s Paris is no exception; she is a rule.