When it comes to finding the bad guys of Olympic history, all roads lead to Germany. Writing in the New York Times at the height of the torch relay fracas in April this year, Edward Rothstein pointed the way: “If you want to know how the Olympic torch really began its ‘Journey of Harmony,’ as the Chinese call its current relay, if you want to see why the torch has had to pass through a human obstacle course composed of protesters, SWAT teams, and police in San Francisco, Paris, and London, then do not look to Tibet’s grievances against China. Look to the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film, “Olympia.” In that homage to Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games the origins of this ritual are revealed. Never before had a lighted torch been relayed from a Greek temple in Olympia to an athletic competition, let alone by thousands of runners trying to keep it from being extinguished.
Rothstein correctly identifies the 1936 Games as the moment when the Olympics’ most potent symbol was born, although it was the Dutch who helped spark the German imagination by introducing a burning flame to the heart of the stadium in Amsterdam 1928. Relay running—albeit without a torch—had been popular from the late nineteenth century, and German athletes even trekked from the Capitol in Washington to New York in 1913. But perhaps he goes a little far in concluding that “the Olympics still preserves the self-loving aura of the Nazi myth.” We need to be careful about mapping Nazi Germany onto the peccadilloes or very serious misdemeanors of the Olympic movement. Berlin 1936 continues to hold our fascination. In 2006 alone, three new English-language books revisited Hitler, Jesse Owens, the Reichssportfeld, and all that. And specterlike, it returns to haunt many discussions of all that is, was, and might in the future be wrong with the Olympic Games. In this sense, Beijing was made for Berlin.
But we should be mindful that German historiography has gradually edged away from a “hard” theory of the Games as “Nazi Olympics” to a “softer,” more nuanced sense of their complex makeup. Without glossing over the obvious fact that the regime broke the Olympic Charter, scholarly opinion now suggests that the Games themselves were relatively autonomous, albeit with what might be called capillary controls. The relay immediately disguised its origin as a recently invented tradition—being picked up immediately at the first Olympics after the Second World War in 1948 and run across a still fractious continent from Olympia to London at no small personal danger to the individual torchbearers. “The simple, readily abstracted, and ‘universalizable’ requirements of this ritual,” as Chicago anthropologist John MacAloon observed, rendered it “especially open to local meaning making, not only among different cultures but also in the hearts of different persons.” In fact, over twenty years of ethnographical fieldwork led MacAloo...
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