Nobody likes to be a spoilsport, least of all in a year when sportiness will be unavoidable in these islands. All the same, there is something about the expensive farrago surrounding the Olympic flame, lit in Olympia yesterday, which brings on an attack of pre-Games queasiness. It is now on its way from Greece, just as it was 76 years ago when Josef Goebbels, then in the Lord Coe role, first came up with the idea of promoting Aryanism with the help of a torch made by the arms manufacturer Krupp.
Today, the idea of purity survives in a less loathsome form – the flame is meant to be lit by the pure rays of the sun magnified by a mirror – but it is still part of a hugely expensive, carefully planned exercise in brainwashing.
Supporters of this relatively recent tradition argue that traipsing a torch around Greece, and then around Britain (with an apologetic little dash into Ireland), brings the Olympic spirit to those unable to attend. Sport, it is said, can send out a global message of peace, love and fraternity. While Olympic events celebrate excellence, the flame marks the contributions of ordinary, "inspirational people".
When sport is used for propaganda purposes, we should all be wary. At this week's silly faux-pagan lighting ceremony – muscular men and nubile girls wafting around in white robes like extras from Ben-Hur – the small delegation from the UK included such representatives of global purity as senior managers from Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB.
Having been taken around Greece (a country, one might think, with rather more important matters on its mind), the torch will be flown to Cornwall and start its long journey around the villages of Britain. Here, the inspirational torchbearers – asthmatic schoolkids, have-a-go grannies, legless war heroes, reformed crack addicts, TV presenters, charity workers, half-forgotten footballers – will form a daisy-chain of national self-congratulation. With a six-hour dash to Dublin – and I promise I'm not making this up – the Irish peace process will be marked by torchbearers including the eccentric twins of reality TV, Jedward.
A bizarre combination of phoney mythological nonsense, celebrity endorsement, sentimentality and national smugness, the torch campaign has been organised by politicians and business people in whose interests it is to stoke a fake sense of wellbeing. Sport has been hijacked by the powerful. This patronising hocus-pocus is staged to make us all feel kinder and better than we in fact are. Even without Leni Riefenstahl to capture it all on camera, the Olympic torch remains an instrument of manipulative propaganda, which has little to do with any kind of purity.