August 01: The First Olympic Torch

2016/08/01 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1936 the first Olympic torch marathon concluded.

The Olympic games are, of course, very very old (and when the Muse thinks something is old, trust Her: it’s OLD).  The events surrounding the games were rather different back at the start of things, and most of today’s pageantry is of very recent invention, including the torch relay. This new tradition of running the flame from Olympia to the host city is not even as old as the oldest of the “modern” games, which resumed in 1896.   It was inaugurated for the 1936 games in Berlin.  Yes, young friends, that dramatic display of fire and distance runners is a holdover of Nazi propaganda.  It was dreamt up by Carl Diem, who has his place with Riefenstahl and Goebbels and Speer as propagandists who used material culture for the glorious purpose of celebrating the ruling political power.  The torch and its relay played a particularly important role within the architectural set pieces that served as backdrop to the games, but perhaps as (or more) importantly for creating enduring images in photographs and films of the event.  The torch relay sought the same ends as Hitler’s architecture, strengthening racial ideology by binding modern Germany to the roots of civilization in ancient Greece, as well as creating timeless images of an empire that intended to endure for centuries.  They did it with that most timeless architectural language: Greek.  Beginning in the ruins of the fifth-century Temple of Hera in Olympia, the torch relay arrived in Berlin through the historic Brandenburg Gate (1788), the triumphal entry to the city on the famous Unter den Linden boulevard that once led to the Prussian palace.  The relay proceeded to the Lustgarden where the Altes Museum (1823), another great Grecian cultural landmark, formed an edge for the parade ground.  Chosen for his elegant gait, the final runner lit the cauldron that was elevated on a high plinth, simple and monumental, ageless, newly built to resonate with Speer’s ideal of “ruin value.”  Thus the flame arrived in the capital of Germany, some eons after the superior race spread northward from the Aegean to cross the Danube.

Although the mission of a muse is to inspire, she can’t control what happens with that inspiration; it is with greatly mixed feelings this One observed the adoption of her home country’s art and architecture in Germany through the centuries.  But She does not despair.  Although the structures of the Third Reich have been extinguished, the temple, the gate and the museum survive: a testament to the spirit symbolized by that flame.

Image: the first torch, in the parade ground, Berlin (from this source)

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