Hitler dream that dims the Olympic torch

The symbolic flame relay may have been invented by the Nazis, writes David Usborne

New York - It was Monday at 3.09pm when the Olympic caravan appeared over the brow of the hill and slowly proceeded into our town of Cos Cob, Connecticut. School had finished early and it seemed every soul that lives here was lining the road. Finally, beyond the floats, the police cruisers and television vans, a flickering flame came into view and collectively we drew in our breath in awe.

This was our day in the glow of the Olympic torch that has been wending its way since 27 April from Los Angeles through the United States on its way to Atlanta for the opening next month of the summer games. It is a giant relay over 15,000 miles and through 42 states, with thousands of runners bearing it for a few fractions of a mile before passing it on to the next one. "Look, look, there it is," one excited mother gushed to her child. "That is history. Doesn't it give you the chills?"

A "mother flame" was ignited from the sun's rays passed through a magnifying lens on Mount Olympus in Greece on 30 March. And on every night of the relay, that flame is placed in a guarded hotel room (always a Holiday Inn, a relay sponsor). The unabashed commercialism of the parade hardly disturbs us - no fewer than 10,000 of these torches have been made to allow every participant to take theirs home to their mantelpieces so long as they are willing to pay $275 (pounds 180).

What moves these crowds - and will undoubtedly move President Bill Clinton when he receives the flame at the White House tomorrow - is the sense of connection: to a universal symbol of peace and to a thread of world history that stretches back to amateur competition in honour of Zeus in Greece several centuries before the birth of Christ. And so we gasp. What we most certainly do not think of is Adolf Hitler and the pomp of Nazi Germany. But according to David Young, a classics professor at the University of Florida, we should.

"Many aspects of our Olympic Games have been justified by specious ancient antecedents," he claims in an article in the July-August issue of the US periodical, Archaeology Magazine. Among the misconceptions he notes is the notion that the torch relay has ancient origins.

That was dreamt up by a German named Carl Diem. The professor writes that Diem, who organised the 1936 Berlin games for the Fuhrer, "seeking to glamorise them with an ancient aura, staged the first lighting of the Olympic Flame, now a hallowed ritual in which thousands delight". Indeed. He adds that the first torches where made by the Krupp company, which was otherwise occupied in making munitions for Hitler.

The professor also disabuses us of illusions about the five-ringed symbol of the games. They were invented by the founder of the modern Olympics, the Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, for whom each ring represented a continent of the globe. For years, according to the professor, learned books sourced the logo to an inscription of the rings found on a rock at Delphi in Greece. "The books identify it as ancient and say that the five rings `later adopted as the symbol of the Olympics' and are `considered by experts to be 3,000 years old'. More nonsense".

Sadly, it is the 1936 games that provide the truth once again. According to Mr Young, the rings were scratched into the rock for a scene in a propaganda film about the infamous Berlin games called Olympia that was made for Hitler by the German director, Leni Riefenstahl.

There was nothing wrong with all of us getting the chills on Monday. But, if Professor Young is correct, we had them for the wrong reasons.

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