Another day and another Greek fire lighting ceremony. It’s a tradition that goes back for centuries. After all those anti-austerity riots when someone even set fire to Athens’ official christmas tree, it was no surprize to see that old Greek flame rekindled yesterday. Not by a rioter this time but a dignified troupe of Greek classical actors led by the elegant Ino Menegaki who knows a thing or two about Greek tragedy but, luckily, only on the stage.
It was a brief moment of calm in a nation on the brink of chaos as we watched all those dancing vestal virgins, well actually they were actresses (am I allowed to use the feminine ending here?) – I’ve no idea if they were virgins or not but they looked the part. Sorry about this though, didn’t they look just a little bit silly?
I don’t know if the boys were meant to be virgins too but their dance, I’m afraid, teetered over into comedy – maybe it was those dresses.
I was prepared to keep my sniggering under control though because it was all in a good cause, oh yes, sorry, in case you didn’t know, Britain is hosting the Olympic games this year and appropriately enough for the occasion I suppose, Alexandros Nikolaidis, a Greek Taekwando champion, won back some masculine dignity when Ino, the high Priestess lit his fire.
I wasn’t sure though about Spyros Gianniotis, the Liverpool-born, Greek World champion swimmer. I know it was symbolic and optimistic, the olive branch and the Olympic torch and I’m all for peace and hope coming out of Greece but, somehow, these modern acts of Olympic symbolism do creek a bit. I am reminded of junior school pageants. I wanted to say: Well done Spyros, you were a very good boy.
I know it is an ancient tradition this business of the Olympics and fire. It is reputed to go back to the Greek legend when the Titan, Prometheus, stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humankind enabling us all to reach for the stars in a celebration of humanity. You can see the idea if you look at the Prometheus statue (1924) by Paul Manship (1885-1966) outside the Rockefeller Center in New York – an early and delightfully graceful example of Art Deco. Here is Prometheus descending to Earth after enraging the king of the gods, Zeus, with the theft that would bring human enlightenment. Now there’s some proper symbolism beautifully executed.
The ancient Greeks really did light a flame for their Olympics – it was offered to Zeus, the games’ patron but it was also a symbol of man’s hope and potential.
It wasn’t relayed around the World though, that idea came with the so-called Nazi Games in Berlin (1934) and was the idea of Germany’s Carl Diem (1882-1962) who was in charge of the Games under that previously unenthusiastic sportsman, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Hitler loved the idea of bringing what he saw as Greece’s legacy of Aryan supremacy as a fiery beacon through the subservient states of Europe to its moment of triumph in its natural home at the centre of the German Third Reich. Another piece of powerful symbolism but one that might be best forgotten. These days Greece is sending an altogether different message to Germany – symbolised by a certain finger gesture and maybe, sadly, by the moment after being lit when the Olympic flame got blown out again and had to be hurriedly rekindled. What symbolism there then?
Maybe we all need to be careful with these over-blown ceremonies – not only do they have a dangerous tendency to look ridiculous but they often get their symbols in a twist. A little less triumphalism please and a lot less naff choreography. Personally, I think those athletes should just show us their skills and let the best man/woman/person win – that should be enough to light anyone’s fire.