You may, as I did, have caught a glimpse of the Olympic torch lighting ceremony that was held yesterday in Olympia, the centre of the ancient games. There were “priestesses”, in outfits that owed more to the Debenhams Occasion department than to ancient Greece, and an interpretative dance by blokes in short tunics. At one point the eternal flame went out. It was all deliciously earnest, an early 20th century classical revival via Disneyland.
The ceremony is a modern invention, a sort of weird classical mash up, up, invented at Hitler’s request and designed to be filmed. Who are the priestesses priestesses of? If they are (as one suspects the creator had some dim memory of) vestal virgins, theyre a long way from home. Then there was that pseudo-Christian business with the white dove. Where’s the animal sacrifice, and more to the point, Zeus?
The absurdity of the ceremony undercuts the myth that the modern Olympics attempts to sell to us: that it has anything at all to do with the ancient games. Why stop at the Olympics, after all? Next Ashes, let’s pay some actors to dress up in ropey Saxon outfits as Alfred the Great and his housecarls and ritually cremated a wicket at Stonehenge. The bland and sanitised Classics-lite of the torch ceremony tries to create a sense of unbroken continuity between the present games and its ancient forebears, much in the same way modern commentators like to see a golden umbilical cord stretching unbroken from modern Europe back to the democracy of ancient Athens. Media coverage of the event plays into this, leaving the viewer with the image of a group of Greek Olympic priestesses who spend the rest of the four years between each ceremony hanging around in the ruins, generally priestessing at the cradle of democracy.*
It might be comforting and convenient to think of Greece as a kind of living museum, to gloss over more than two thousand years of turbulent history to create a naff origin myth for the west (and a cast iron precedent for the often controversial excesses of the modern games, this torch ceremony included). But in 2012 its hardly doing Greece any favours. On the same day as the ceremony a British newspaper ran an article about the decay of the Olympic facilities built in Athens for the 2004 games. For a modern country struggling with the severest recession in its history, where funding cuts have threatened the ability of museums – including at Olympia – to protect their archaeological heritage, such a naff mirage of classical continuity is not what’s needed.
If we really are serious about the symbolic link between the ancient and modern games, then cut this ritual nonsense and move the Olympics ‘back’ to Olympia full time.
*a distinction between ancient Athens and Greece of course not in anyone’s interests to make.