Shedding Light on the Torch

The journey of the Olympic torch was supposed to be a 58-day celebration of the Beijing Olympics. Through 21 countries and across 85,000 miles, the flame was meant to spotlight the way 21st century China was ready to claim its place as modern economic superpower.

Instead, the journey has been a public relations apocalypse, and an obstacle course for unsuspecting athletes and dignitaries, confronted by an international gauntlet of agitators. In France, police alongside Chinese security officers had to use tear gas to keep protesters at bay and officials had to extinguish the torch five separate times. In London, 37 people were arrested trying to impede the torch. In San Francisco last Wednesday, thousands turned out to demonstrate, which led to a bizarre situation where the torchbearers ran a few yards, disappeared into a warehouse, and then reappeared on a city bus. This isn’t the esteemed expedition of the torch. This is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles go to the Olympics.

China has blamed the protests on “a few Tibetan separatists.” That would be news to the protester Charles Altekruse, who as a member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team, was forced to sit out the 1980 Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott. “Today, my voice is the voice for thousands of people whose voices cannot be heard,” said Altekruse, who lives not in Lhasa, but Berkeley.

China’s recent crackdown on Tibet has opened a view on a host of abuses throughout the Chinese mainland, as well as the complicity of the International Olympic Committee and the West embedded in every abuse: the 2 million people displaced for Olympic facilities, the violation of labor standards so Western nations have an endless army of cheap labor, mass jailing of dissidents who dare to complain, and the environmental degradation of the country.

But the protests have been also aimed at the IOC and their efforts to shamelessly promote China’s titanic economy. Juliana Barbassa of the Associated Press could not have been clearer writing, “The torch’s global journey was supposed to highlight China’s growing economic and political power.”

IOC president Jacques Rogge lamented the protests, saying that the journey of the torch was supposed to be “a Journey of Harmony, bringing the message of peace to the people of different nationalities, cultures and creeds.” Would that it were.

The first torch run was actually the brainchild of Dr. Carl Diem, the organizer of Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He convinced Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, that 3,422 young Aryan runners should carry burning torches along the 3,422 km route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin. The event would be captured by the regime’s filmmaking prodigy, Leni Riefenstahl, and broadcast over radio.

In fact, Rogge’s dream that the torch be a symbol of “peace, harmony and global unity” is reminiscent of Hitler’s own words in 1936. “Sporting chivalrous contest,” Hitler proclaimed before the torch’s inaugural lighting, “helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore, may the Olympic flame never expire.”

As Chris Bowlby wrote for BBC News, “…it was planned with immense care by the Nazi leadership to project the image of the Third Reich as a modern, economically dynamic state with growing international influence.”

China today, with the IOC’s backing, wanted the torch to travel through the nations of Western Europe and the United States, as well as Tibet, as a way to spread the gospel of China’s global reach. In 1936, Diem also planned the route with political considerations in mind. The torch was carried exclusively through European areas where the Third Reich wanted to extend its reach.

When the flame made its way through Vienna, it was accompanied by mammoth pro-Nazi demonstrations. Two years later, Austria would be annexed.

Today, without question, there are people with dubious motives calling for a boycott of the Summer Games. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has hedged on attending even though Britain’s Olympic Committee has already laid down the law that its athletes are forbidden from any political acts on Chinese soil. The reptilian Sen. Hillary Clinton has said President Bush should boycott, even though she and her husband in the 1990s fought to make China a part of the World Trade Organization, and repeatedly granted China Most Favored Nation trade status. Barack Obama just joined Clinton in the “me too” chorus to see who can blame China for the ecoomic maladies facing the U.S. Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan lamented in a commentary that President Bush and the Republican Party is “coddl[ing] Communist China.”

None of these critics existed before people started protesting. And none of them will refrain from doing business with China in the future.

Protesters have held a light to the present hypocrisy of the Olympic torch. In expressing concern about the San Francisco protests, USOC President Peter Ueberroth said, “The only concern is our reputation as a country.” Perhaps, as this debacle runs its course, Ueberroth should be more concerned with the reputation of the International Olympic Committee and the quadrennial orgy of sporting nationalism and corporate greed.

Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). He can be reached at: Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. joed said on April 16th, 2008 at 5:26am #

    thanks for the fine article. it says what needs to be said about this contrived world-wide non-sense.
    i can’t say anything intelligent about china, amerika or the olympics so i will say tribalism sucks. why china for worthless protest? why not palestine or cashmere or sri lanka or north dakota. thats right “north fucking dakota”; some humans there want out too!
    interesting trivia about the nazi’s parade 1n 1936. not much has changed except maybe better coverage; you know, satellites and all.
    there is nothing these murderous hate filled thugs (bush/cheney gang) wont do. so, if there are deaths and destruction in china this summer then chances will be good that cia or whoever is in the catering line.
    how ’bout that king of tibet (dhali lama) he want his country back and his kingdom and his slaves too!
    thanks again for the fine article.
    viva le resistance!

  2. tom payne said on April 16th, 2008 at 8:32pm #

    There is a ton of BS that leads up to the Olympics, and they can be corporate sponsorship hell, and they are used for all sorts of bizarre political purposes that have nothing to do with who can run the fastest.

    But, when all of that is done and the games finally begin, they are a lot of fun and a great experience.

    Here’s my Olympic torch story. In 1996 I lived maybe a mile away from the Olympic stadium. The last night before the opening ceremonies, the Adolf Hitler memorial torch run was going through the neighborhoops of Atlanta. At 10pm or so it was supposed to go past my favorite neighborhood bar. So I went over to eat dinner, drink a couple of beers and see the torch go by.

    I wasn’t the only one with the idea, so there was a nice crowd in the place. The owners were cool people, so one of them was going table to table with a bottle of Jaegermeister giving away free shots to everyone in the place. I was one of the regulars in the place, so somehow he kept swinging by my table. 🙂

    Somewhere in the evening, two guys from Austrailia came in. Loud, boisterous and a lot of fun. Said hello on their first night in Atlanta by buying the bar a round of drinks. So, we bought them a few rounds back. Everyone got a little louder and more boisterous. That was a good hint for what the Olympics were going to be like.

    10pm came and went, no sign of the torch. More shots of Jaegermeister. More shots and more storytelling with the Aussies. Still no torch. Someone said they’d heard on tv or radio that it was hours behind schedule. More shots.

    By 3 am, me and the owner of the bar are sitting on the curb of the street outside the bar, with another bottle of Jaegermeister going back and forth between us. The Aussies had given up and gone back to the hotel. I remember a bunch of bright flashing lights going past, and looking up and realizing one of them must be the torch.

    The Olympics are great. Eventually, all the BS is past and its just people. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world gather and have a great time watching their favorite athletes. Everyone is friendly. Everyone is there to have a good time. And you meet people from litterally everywhere.

    Sports gives people a reason to talk. When people would normally look at each other an not know what to say, sports gives them an ice-breaker to talk. During the Olympics, you can walk up to anyone and talk to anyone. The Olympics gives you the common ground to connect on that level. After that, its just two human beings talking.

    There’s a lot of BS spread about the Olympic Spirit by the IOC types. But you know what, behind all the hot air, its real. There is an Olympic Spirit. Its one of peace and friendship. Its hundreds of thousands of people coming together and having a good time. Its those Aussies walking into our bar and everyone enjoying the evening.

    We had a right-wing Nazi in Atlanta try to spoil it with a bomb. The next day, I was standing in line to get into the main stadium to watch track and field. The line was longer because they’d increased security checks. There were probably 80,000 people in those lines, and I think everyone had the same thought …. what sort of psycho would try to bomb this? The spirit of peace was so palpable that this idiot with a bomb just seemed obviously insane.

    There’s a lot of BS with the Olympics. Everyone tries to score political points from it. The Chinese are trying to do it. So I don’t mind if someone else scores a few back. I can’t stand the opening ceremonies anyways, so I don’t care if the politician types attend or not.

    But, once all of that is done, something magical will happen. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world will gather. And they’ll meet and talk with others. They’ll laugh. They’ll enjoy some competition and cheer on their favorite athletes. They’ll look around and see everyone else doing the same. For the people who are there, all the BS of the world, all the political scheming that tries to keep us humans divided, it will all drop away. Just look into the eyes of your fellow man and see their laughter and joy. We are really all just the same.

  3. Binh said on April 17th, 2008 at 8:48am #

    I had no idea the Chinese government forced 2 million to move. That’s a lot of people! Great article Dave, I’m waiting for the day you get a regular column in Socialist Worker.

  4. hp said on April 17th, 2008 at 2:19pm #

    Tom, very refreshing.
    One question..
    Did they ever catch the ‘nazi’ who set the bomb?
    I know they ‘caught’ an innocent guy and finally let him go.
    Just wondering..

  5. HR said on April 17th, 2008 at 8:32pm #

    The olympics are nothing more than a Chamber of Commerce extravaganza, paid for by the public, in one form or another, all the hype about corporate sponsorship notwithstanding. It’s the public who ends up susidizing or paying for the stadia and other grounds where the “games” are held, the public who foots the bill for security, traffic control, and so on. At just the federal level, see the GAO report on funding:

    I begrudge every damned cent of my tax money that goes to support this competitive BS, and have all my adult life.

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 18th, 2008 at 5:08am #

    Thanx for this Zirin. And today – the 18th – the torch is in trouble in Japan.

  7. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 18th, 2008 at 5:16am #

    Damn nigh a perfect piece, Mr. Z. This Carl Diem? Any relationship of names with the fellow the CIA had exd in South Vietnam in…1963…(was it)?

  8. hp said on April 18th, 2008 at 3:48pm #

    HR, same with NASA.

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 19th, 2008 at 7:25am #

    I’m a sports fan. And I seem to recall swearing off the big newspress when — after having dunned into our heads for months that it’s “Americans who pay for the Olympics, not America” — “our” IOC withdrew America’s team. WHEN WAS that? 1972?

  10. hp said on April 19th, 2008 at 11:05am #

    Kurt Thomas did it for me.

  11. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 21st, 2008 at 9:11pm #


    And Remember. Contribute to the IOC. Because. “America doesn’t send athletes to the Olympics, Americans Do!!”