Against the backdrop of this year’s tumultuous Olympic torch relay, New York Times polymath Edward Rothstein locates the origins of this peculiar ritual:
If you want to know how the Olympic torch really began its “Journey of Harmony,” as the Chinese call its current relay, if you want to see why the torch has had to pass through a human obstacle course composed of protesters, SWAT teams and police in San Francisco, Paris and London, then do not look to Tibet’s grievances against China. Look to the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film, “Olympia.”
In that homage to Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games the origins of this ritual are revealed. Never before had a lighted torch been relayed from a Greek temple in Olympia to an athletic competition, let alone by thousands of runners trying to keep it from being extinguished.
Rothstein writes that with the 1936 torch relay Nazi Germany was staking its claim as “the living heir to Ancient Greece.” He also points out that the Nazis had plans for a 400,000-seat stadium in Nuremberg, since future Olympic Games, as Hitler put it, “will take place in Germany for all time to come” (with the exception of a 1940 turn at hosting for fellow Axis power Japan).
Unsurprisingly, Rothstein notes, the International Olympic Committee “offers a slightly different account of the torch relay.”