If only Putin had read Plato

By Charles Stocking
February 06, 2014

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OLYMPICflameIllustration by Frank Neufeld

This week, millions of spectators from around the world will watch as the Olympic flame is ignited in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

The lighting ceremony is the result of a record-breaking torch relay, which began in Olympia Greece, travelled more than 45,000 miles, and even went into space. However, the Sochi torch relay has also been a tortured one.

The Olympic flame has been extinguished more than 44 times on its journey; several torchbearers have caught fire; one torchbearer died of a heart attack, just after finishing his leg of the relay; and don’t forget the arrest of one man during the torch relay for simply unfurling an LGBTQ flag.


Of course, all of these tribulations will be forgotten in the crowning moments of the Opening Ceremonies, which are intended to allow spectators to forget the immediate past in favour of remembering the ancient.

As a form of nostalgia by design, the torch relay, which travelled from Greece to Russia, is meant to be an embodied symbol of the continuity between the ancient Olympics and the modern Games. But how much continuity is there? How much do the modern Olympic Games capture the spirit of ancient athletics?

A brief history of the torch relay will reveal the distance between the ancient and modern Games is more than the miles travelled from Olympia to Sochi.

It may come as a surprise to many that the torch relay, despite its overt symbolism, was never practiced at the ancient Olympic Games. Rather, the torch relay began with the Berlin 1936 Olympics, otherwise known as the ‘Nazi Games.’ According to the official International Olympic Committee ( IOC) factsheet on the Olympic flame, the torchbearers of the modern Games should be compared to the ancient Olympic heralds “who carry the flame carry a message of peace on their journey.”

But that first torch relay from Greece to Berlin through Europe was hardly a call to peace. The countries through which the first Olympic flame passed – Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia – all eventually came under German domination. Indeed, the very un-peaceful beginnings of the torch relay can even be seen in the production of the torches themselves, which were made by the Krupp corporation, the very same corporation that served as the primary source for German rearmament.

George Orwell famously quipped that sport was simply “war minus the shooting.”

In the case of the Berlin Olympics, those making the Olympic torches were also making the bullets for shooting.

That first modern Olympic torch relay, from Greece to Berlin, is one every subsequent Olympic torch relay would seek to erase rather than remember. But perhaps we should remember that first modern torch relay and the lessons it brings for the Sochi Olympics.

There were many threats to boycott the Berlin Olympics, due to Germany’s anti-Semitism under the Nazi regime. We should not forget Sochi presents spectators and participants with a similar concern regarding the violation of basic human rights, due to Russia’s legislation on ‘Gay Propaganda.’

Many athletes did boycott the Berlin 1936 Olympics, but many also participated. The official stance by the IOC in favour of not boycotting the Olympic Games, whether Berlin, Sochi or others, has always been the separation of sport and politics, which history has proven to be an impossibility.

But the lack of separation between sport and politics is also a reason in and of itself not to boycott.

If sport really is war minus the shooting, what better way to ‘shoot back’ than through participation? As a case in point, Jesse Owens’ victories at the Berlin Games were serious ammo against Nazi ideology. The brave LGBTQ athletes participating in Sochi will bring similar fire power.

If the modern history of the torch relay provides an important model for the Olympic Games, albeit a negative one, the torch relay’s ancient origins provide a more positive paradigm.

Although the torch relay was never part of the ancient Olympics, it was performed at the Panathenaic Festival. The Panathenaia was a religious festival designed to celebrate the glory of Athens and was held every four years like the ancient Olympics. One of the most significant features of the Panathenaic torch relay is where it began — at the altar of love and desire, Eros. This altar of Eros is said to have been dedicated by the Athenian general Charmus, who was the lover (not in the Platonic sense) of Peisistratus, the Athenian tyrant who first popularized the Panathenaic Games.

Yes, for the Greeks, Eros was gender blind and made little distinction between heterosexual and homosexual desire. It was this gender blind Eros which was considered an overall civic good and served as the foundation for ancient Greek athletics, not just in Athens, but at Olympia, and throughout all of Greece.

The philosopher Plato specifically praised the virtues of that non-Platonic form of love, when he explains that Eros creates strong bonds of friendship, philia, and community, koinônia. And for this reason, he states, “it is far better to love openly than in secret.” (Plato, Symposium 182c-d)

This is the most important history lesson one should learn from the ancient torch relay, that it began at the altar of Eros. Nothing could be farther from the spirit of ancient athletics than the Russian legislation against ‘Gay Propaganda.’

There is a horrible historical irony to the fact someone can be arrested for simply carrying an LGBTQ flag at a world event that is consciously recalling the practice of ancient Greek athletics.

If only Putin had read Plato.

And so as we watch the Opening Ceremonies, I hope that we will recall both the ancient and modern history of the torch relay. Ancient Greece has been invoked time and again in the service of conflicting social and political ideologies.

Even a basic knowledge of the past will help us to determine the difference between ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ of the ancient Greek tradition. The Olympic flame will always carry many meanings connecting past and present, and it is for us to decide if the Sochi Olympic flame will be an ancient or modern one, if it will be the flame first started in Berlin or the flame that was ignited on the altar of Eros.

Before coming to Western, Classical Studies professor Charles Stocking was also an athletic performance coach at UCLA and consulted for many Olympic athletes. Among other courses, he now teaches Sport and Recreation in the Ancient World (CS2300), where students have the opportunity to think about how the ancient past impacts the practice of present day sports competition.


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