From the outset, the ceremony was incredibly boring and featureless. A bunch of woman dancing around wearing white skirts and waving sheets does not hold much significance for me and I would daresay for the rest of the world. It was a purposeless ceremony that seemed to signify nothing, neither a paean to a people who once held the games, nor one to world peace and the brotherhood of mankind. It was unintelligible and strange, as if we had all snuck in uninvited to an ancient Mithraic cult ceremony, and were not explained the symbolism of each act. This is when haute parts company with couture and becomes just plain haughty.
Pointing this out to older relatives, I was inundated with a barrage of “Shhhh! This is our ancient culture. It is a part of us!” Well really. While people have been weaving national myths about themselves for centuries in order to develop a national consciousness, nothing in the Torch ceremony seemed to me to be remotely Greek. Indeed, the demented music, slow marching and frolicking reminded me of a Xena the Warrior Princess episode, without all the leather. I felt that I could not identify at all with the ceremony, neither as a Greek or as a world citizen. It left me completely cold.
This is probably because while a special place has been created for the Olympic Games in our national myth, this is a myth that still sits uneasily with us as the Games really do not form part of our heritage and culture. Sure they form part of our history, considering that Greek people invented and held games right up until the time of Theodosius, and they are a remarkable achievement. Nevertheless, the tradition of the games vanished. The noble ideals of competition and truce between warring states as well as bringing honour to a city and the gods through physical activity was completely extinguished in a way that other aspects of our ancient past, such as philosophy, never did. One’s national heritage comprises of those things left behind by one’s ancestors, which in some shape or form, continuously exist in one’s culture until the present. The Olympic Games, lost for almost two thousand years and resuscitated again as an artificial western construct is one of these.
It is therefore unacceptable to claim that the Torch lighting ceremony is part of our heritage. At the least, it could be argued that it forms part of our history. Wrong again. There never was a torch lighting ceremony in Olympia during the ancient games. As the eminent ancient scholar Dr Kostas Vitkos informs me, heralds were sent to each city bearing an olive branch, to announce the Olympic truce and call for participation. That to my mind is a more generous and noble gesture, a true tribute to the ideals of our ancient forefathers, than the tasteless, historically baseless pseudo-ballet that took place in Olympia last week. Our ancient Ολυμπιονίκες like the strongman Milo of Croton, who, attempting to split open a tree in an effort to show who strong and cool he was, got his hand stuck in a tree hollow and was devoured by wolves, must be turning in their graves. There certainly is no justification for pretending that a ceremony is part of our culture when it purports to historically re-enact an event that never took place. That is nationalism at its most crass.
If anything, the delight of the Greek people in watching the Greek government parody its ancestors and actually insult them by making up some strange form of ancient religious liturgy that bears no relation to the original or modern Olympic Games, is indicative of a people who are still not comfortable with their own identity. They need positive reinforcement to prove to themselves and the world that they are worthy and will even present false and tasteless ceremonies to the world to prove so. How immature. It is to George Papandreou’s credit that he gave such a ceremony its due respect. While all other guests wore suits, he chose to wear jeans. And why not.
It is also interesting how the organizers of the Torch ceremony chose to hijack an already important day in the Greek calendar in order to promote the Games, the 25th of March. This is a double insult to the entire nation. The 25th day of March has been set aside to celebrate the miracle of the Greek Revolution. Our ancestors who staked everything they had for freedom from foreign domination and founded the modern Greek state form part of our immediate heritage and their memories and achievements deserve to be celebrated and appreciated by their descendants without the ceremony being sullied by marketers and workshoppers, eager to exploit this very special day for their own ends. Our very own Consul-General’s 25th day of March message, which spends a great deal more time talking about the importance of the Olympic Games than that of our forefather’s sacrifices, is further indication of this misguided capitalization of the single key event in the formation of Modern Greece. At the same time, as Giorgios Papadakis of “Kalimera Ellada” fame was shocked to find out, many Greek youth do not even know why we celebrate the 25thof March, linking it with World War II or the junta. Considering government policy, this is no wonder.
Even more insulting is the fact that the organizers of the ceremony chose to hold their torch-lighting on the day which in the Orthodox Calendar, celebrates the Annunciation of the Virgin, one of the most important events in the Christian religion. Given that the Greek Orthodox faith is still the official religion of Greece, how can government officials, including the President of the Republic of Greece have the insensitivity to participate, during a religious holiday, in neo-pagan festivals in which hymns and prayers to non-existent deities are sung? The answer is, because decorum and tact will always be sacrificed on the altar of self-promotion and gain. A more appropriate day could have been chosen, one which does not overshadow other significant events and in which the ideals of Olympism, whatever they are conceived to be, could be celebrated of their own accord.
The Athens Olympic Games by most accounts will be an outstanding success. It is touching that they will return, albeit briefly, to their country of birth. However, we ought never to forget that the Games are no longer a Greek festival. Since their resuscitation by de Courbetin, they are an event that belongs to the entire world. As such, is it really worthwhile to sacrifice our own identity and precious historical memory for the sake of some kudos, begrudgingly given by the outside world? That would be, to my mind, hubris to say the least.
first published in NKEE on 5 April 2004