Overrated: Olympic Torch

April 10, 2008 | Comments (0) | by Brant Brown

The Olympics are no stranger to controversy. We all know this. While the dream of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may be to focus strictly on the games and the sportsmanship of a global athletic field, the Olympics often end up being the stage used for political gambles. Boycotts of the Games have occured in 1976, 1980, and 1984. Few in our generation remember it, but the deadly attack on the Israeli athletes in 1972 still digs deep in many hearts. Though the intent is to inspire patriotism and unity in every country that participates, the Olympics have increasingly been used since World War I as a tool to display strong nationalist sentiment and illuminate political ideologies. If only the IOC simply had performance enhancing drugs to worry about. Instead, the growing tendency has been to belabor the flaws of the host country, and because of the nature of the host selection process, there are always a good seven or eight years in which to expound upon them.

Yes, China is one of the few remaining Communist countries. Their human rights record is deplorable at best. There is no excuse for the government's level of persecution toward the people of Tibet, or their defiance of Taiwan's desire to separate from the mainland. And far too little is being done about their funding of Sudan's government, and China's subsequent role in the genocide occurring in that country, all for just a little more oil. There are few secrets in the world community as to what goes on in China, closed as it may be. However, the IOC chose Beijing to hold the 2008 Games, partly in an effort to crack open that door in China and hopefully bring about the first steps in meaningful political and social change. China, for their part, verbally agreed to at least consider alleviating some of that oppression. As the Games draw near, however, it is clear that no level of change has been or will be made in China as a result of their gift from the IOC. It's hard to believe with only a few short months to go that any country will boycott these games entirely, but a growing number of international leaders are letting it be known that they will sit out the opening ceremonies. Will the United States? It's still too early to tell, but in the end, probably not, as a slap in the face to China would increase tensions that could not be easily repaired.

The Olympic Flame is perhaps the greatest symbol of the Games. As you know, the Flame is lit during the opening ceremony from the recently much-buzzed-about Olympic Torch. While the Flame is an endearing symbol and non-controversial, the history of the Torch in the 20th Century has its roots in political gamesmanship. The modern concept of the Torch and its relay was invented for the 1936 Games in Berlin. Organizers believed that it could serve as a symbolic link between Greece, which many in the Third Reich believed to be an Aryan predecessor to Germany, and the host country. The Nazi propaganda machine thus used the Torch to bolster the image of Adolf Hitler and create an aura of impending German ascension amongst world powers.

This week the Olympic Torch is in focus again. Mass protests are meeting the Torch around the globe, including the most recent debacle in San Francisco. The media, naturally, is making a very big deal about the Torch and the protests. The Torch currently stands as both the uniting symbol of the Games, and the rights violations in China. Though the discussion of China's merits (or lack thereof) will go on until well after the Games have concluded this August, the Torch and its perilous route will be forgotten. There is little point in maintaining the globetrekking nostalgia of the Torch. It's been there, done that, over land, air and sea. The symbol itself will continue to draw division and allow the media and bloggers (looking at ourselves in the mirror) alike to expound on its virtues every two years. It will likely be met in a more harmonious manner for the Winter Games in 2010, as Canada has done little to draw the ire of the world. But what about London in 2012? Will that Torch meet resistence for Britain's involvement in the quagmire known as Iraq? How will Muslim communities, not only in London, but in other places as well, react to that city's moment in the sun?

The Torch is tired and overrated as a unifying symbol. It has such a tendency to bring animosity that we should perhaps relegate it to a trot throughout the host country and nothing more. It loses its luster when the flame is snuffed out and re-lit across the world, spending a scant few hours in the major countries on each continent, missing most countries entirely. The IOC should focus on making sure that the citizens of the host country have ample opportunity to see it, as those are the people for whom it means the most. The IOC does not need to bite off more than it can chew.

The concept of the globe-trotting Torch misses the mark on what is truly important about the Games. In cases such as China, it only allows more time to fester anger, hate and resentment. China is in the wrong when it comes to its political and social decisions and conditions. People should absolutely make their feelings known, and any boycotts of the Games should surely proceed if that is the way to trigger change. But let the poor, harmless Torch go. Put it out to pasture. It didn't harm anyone.