Hitler's Contribution to Olympic Pageantry





Mr. Perrottet is the author of The Naked Olympics (Random House).

Just how theatrical were the ancient opening ceremonies on the morning of day one? It’s hard not to let our imaginations run riot, blurring Hollywood movies and the pseudoclassical kitsch of our own lavish Olympics rituals. The torch relay, for example, is so ingrained in the modern choreography that most people today assume it was a revival of a pagan tradition—unaware that it was actually concocted for Hitler’s Games in Berlin.

The Nazis knew a good propaganda symbol when they saw one. At noon on July 20, 1936, two weeks before the start of the Berlin Games, a Greek “high priestess” and fourteen girls wearing classical robes gathered in the ancient Stadium of Olympia, and used parabolic mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a wand until it burst into flame. As a torch was kindled, a chant went up— “Oh fire, lit in an ancient and sacred place, begin your race”— followed by a ceremony where one of Pindar’s Pythian odes was sung to ancient instruments. The so-called Olympic flame was then carried by 3,075 relay runners from Greece, passed from magnesium torch to torch (each one bearing the logo of the German arms manufacturer Krupp), until it finally lit a colossal brazier in the Berlin stadium before the Führer’s approving gaze.

In fact, this ceremony never occurred at the ancient Olympics. The modern conception is a mishmash of two quite different pagan traditions that Berlin’s masterminds—in particular, Dr. Carl Diem, a leading German scholar who became head of the organizing committee—had brilliantly reworked. Olympia, like all ancient Greek and Roman sanctuaries, did have its own eternal flame, which was kept burning for Hestia, goddess of the hearth, in a building called the Prytaneion, or “Magistrate’s House.” It was used to light all the sacrificial fires at altars throughout the sanctuary. And some other ancient Greek cities did have a lampadedromia, or torch race, as part of their local festivals. At Athens, for example, young men wearing nothing but a diadem hung over their foreheads would race in relay teams from the port of Piraeus south of the city to the Acropolis, trying to keep a baton made of flaming reeds from the narthex plant alight until they reached the altar of Prometheus. It must have made a hypnotic sight from the Parthenon, watching the flames weaving like fireflies through the dark streets below. But no torch lighting, relay races, or other pyrotechnic shows ever made their appearance at the ancient Olympic Games.

The “revived” 1936 torch race perfectly fit the Nazi design for the Olympics as a showcase for the New Germany. With its aura of ancient mysticism, the rite linked Nazism to the civilized glories of classical Greece, which the Reich’s academics were arguing had been an Aryan wonderland. (They were particularly fond of the macho, warlike Spartans—Hitler was even inexplicably convinced that the peasant soup of Schleswig-Holstein was a descendant of Spartan black broth, a famously austere staple fed to the men in communal messes as they underwent their brutal training.) Hitler took considerable personal interest in the ritual, and pumped funds into its promotion: The Nazi propaganda machine covered the torch relay slavishly, broadcast radio reports from every step of the route, and filled the Games with the iconography of ancient Greek athletics. Afterward, the ceremony became permanently embedded in the popular imagination in part due to Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the Nazi Games, Olympia, which evocatively showed a Greek runner treading the gentle beaches of the Aegean at dusk.

Ironically, considering its repellent origins, the torch race has come to symbolize international brotherhood today, and remains a centerpiece of our own pomp-filled Olympic opening ceremonies. (The most popular part of any Games, they are perennially sold out in advance.) Even more strangely, the mock-pagan ritual is still carried out in Greece. Every four years, local teenage girls gather at the temple of Hera at Olympia dressed in faux-pagan regalia—they even use parabolic mirrors to focus the sun’s rays—while runners transmit the flame across the globe, sometimes by airplane, boat, scuba, or camel-back, to each new Olympic stadium. Every summer, the German archaeologists now working at Olympia are peeved to distraction by the hundreds of tourists asking them every day to point out the site of this “ancient” torch-lighting ceremony.

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Excerpted from The Naked Olympics by Tony Perrottet. Copyright 2004 by Tony Perrottet. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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