Olympic renascences: how democratic were the Ancient Olympics?
By Paul Cartledge
Past and Future: The magazine of the Institute of Historical Research, Issue 11 (2012)
Introduction: You were born here’, proclaimed a Greek national tourist organisation poster in the 1970s; ‘come to Greece, birthplace of democracy’. Fact or myth? The modern Olympics are a revival, a renascence, of the Ancient Greek original. Fact or myth? For my forthcoming talk at this summer’s Anglo-American conference, in this Olympic year of 2012, I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose and explore rather more deeply, from a historical point of view, these two claims – or factoids.
Let’s take first the relationship between the Ancient and the modern Olympics: were the Ancient Games revived in 1896, or were they, rather, reinvented? What must soon strike any reader of the torrent of books on the Ancient Games that are cannily released to coincide with (almost) every new Olympics is just how untraditional the modern Games have in fact been. In what Eric Hobsbawm and Terry Ranger in 1983 labelled the ‘invention of tradition’, the modern Olympic ‘movement’ has witnessed a series of innovations introduced in the name of, and often allegedly inspired by, the supposed precedent and model of the Ancient Greek Games.
Consider just one of the most visually memorable, and not the least symbolically significant: the ‘tradition’ of the Olympic flame. In an ever more complicated process, this ritual begins with the ceremonial lighting of a torch from the reflected rays of the sun within the sacred space of Olympia, on 25 March (Greek independence day) of the Olympiad year. It continues with a torch relay, sometimes across whole continents, by land, sea and air, though this year that aspect has been much reduced, for security and other political reasons. It concludes with the ceremonial lighting of the flame – the eternal flame, so to speak – that will burn at the host site of the particular Games in question. In the case of Athens in 2004, the relay lasted some ten weeks and covered 78,000 kilometres across 33 countries and five continents. The flame was conveyed in a steel and wood torch designed in the symbolic shape of an olive leaf and was carried on planes, trains, cars, bicycles, an elephant and a camel; its transfer involved hundreds of athletes and other bearers of various descriptions, at a cost of £25m in all.