Last Friday I wrote a post criticising the modern Olympics’ pseudo-classical torch lighting ceremony which took place last week at Olympia. The word used was “naff”. But, actually, isn’t there something quite… cool about the way that the classical world is adapted and made relevant to the modern era in a billion different ways? I’m thinking Anouhil’s Antigone, Cream’s Tales of Brave Ulysses, the unlikely democratic posturing of Gladiator… Capitol Hill, Via dell’Impero, Downing College, Cambridge… *Even, in all its glorious kitsch, the malarkey with the Olympic torch.
So the torch ceremony doesn’t remotely represent anything that would have taken place at ancient Olympia, so the priestesses are actresses and the blokes fully clothed, but what it does is take classical forms and use them to frame a modern message. Athletes from places beyond Strabo’s wildest dreams will be assembling on an island on the very fringes of the ancient world. Sure, Pierre de Coubertin was inspired by the ancient Games, but this is not a re-enactment. Rather, by using classical forms, the ceremony acknowledges the tradition that has brought us to the present – an intertextual nod to the ancient games – while simultaneously signalling the beginning of the latest round of very modern games. In other worlds, the tradition may have begun under Hitler, but each successive performance is a new one, remaking the ceremony for each new Olympiad. After all, it’s not as if the ancient games either were a stagnant repetition of the same old, four years in, four years out. The experience of an athlete competing in the Games in a Greek world dominated by Macedon would not have been the same as an athlete competing in the Roman Empire, or in the aftermath of the Persian War. Just so for those in 1930s Berlin, or austerity Britain 2012.
It may be kitsch, then, but it’s our kitsch, this 2012 torch ceremony. For classicists it’s just another example of the continued iconographic power of the classical world. The ceremony is a grand old mash up of Vestal Virgins, cavorting in tunics and ancient ruins because these are what we conceive of as authentically classical, never mind their inauthenticity. It’s our own conception of the classical that’s revealing here. De Coubertin employed its authority and kudos to convince the late 19th century of his unlikely international sporting dream, revealing the priorities and prejudices of his time in the process. The first torch ceremony, in the 1930s, with its classical veneer over a fascist agenda, says more about the aims of Hitler’s government than the ancient games. Undoubtedly, looking back, the 2012 ceremony too will reveal more than we’d like about our own zeitgeist. It was never really about the ancient Greeks in the first place; no more than anything else in our classically-framed culture.
*the author acknowledges the impossibility of compiling such a list and has to admit that the things included here probably say a lot more about her than the field of classical reception studies…