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Torch relays a burning issue since their start at Hitler’s ’36 Olympics

The Beijing Games' Olympic torch, shown at lighting ceremonies last month at the site of ancient Olympia in Greece, already is sparking protests over China's political policies during the early days of its traditional relay.
REUTERS/John Kolesidis
The Beijing Games’ Olympic torch, shown at lighting ceremonies last month at the site of ancient Olympia in Greece, already is sparking protests over China’s political policies during the early days of its traditional relay.

In most cases, it would be a Herculean journalistic challenge to get Adolf Hitler and O.J. Simpson into the same story. But, then, these 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, set to open four months from today, are already about as unusual as you can get.

Aug. 8 is when the Games will begin, and they will begin. How many international leaders will boycott the mega-Opening Ceremony remains to be seen. (On Monday, Hillary Rodham Clinton called on President Bush to skip the opening.)

But first things first. This morning, the symbolic Olympic torch arrived in San Francisco amid tight security for its only stop on U.S. soil. On Monday already, the Golden Gate Bridge had become a Torch protest site, and city officials were preparing for more protests during Wednesday’s torch run.

As colleague Sharon Schmickle wrote on MinnPost Monday, the flame has generated lots of heat for China’s policies towards Tibet and Darfur.

But allow a few random thoughts — from Nazis to corporate America to O.J. — to put the entire Olympic Torch Run into some historical and odd perspective.

The first torch run

The symbolic pre-Olympic torch runs of the modern era didn’t begin in Greece. The concept began in Berlin in 1936 to rally support for Hitler’s Nazi Olympics. This is not a good beginning for any tradition.

In his seminal 1971 book about Olympic history, “The Nazi Olympics,” Richard Mandell writes thoroughly about the “pagan spectacle” of Hitler’s ’36 Games.

Then, as occurred in Greece last month for these Beijing Games, a flame was ignited by the sun’s rays. And a torch was run from Greece to Germany to light the Olympic Flame at the Olympic Stadium.

“All Germans were intended beneficiaries of the Nazi festivals, which had psychological and civic value,” Mandell wrote. And the Olympics — with their flags, flames, swastikas and nationalism — were the ultimate Nazi festival. Not surprisingly, Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry followed the torch run and produced news releases for international consumption, according to Mandell.

The torch run sparked the entire Olympic festival, which was intended to highlight the power of Aryans. African-American Olympian Jesse Owens altered those perceptions by winning four gold medals over Hitler’s white guys, but, nevertheless, the Torch Relay as a sort of religious symbol for the Games was born.

For a more thorough examination, the BBC posted a fine piece on this the other day.

For many recent Olympic cycles, the torch run has been a vehicle for corporate sponsors to generate buzz for the Games and involve average citizens by allowing them to carry the torch. It’s also extended the period of time that a company can leverage its multimillion-dollar “official Olympic sponsor” label. Mostly, the torch runs — if a bit corporate — have allowed regular folks to become part of the Olympics.

But . . .

Be careful what you sponsor

This year, the Olympic Torch Run has three key sponsors: Coca-Cola, Lenovo (the computer company) and Samsung.

All the protests haven’t been good news for those outfits.

For one thing, all corporate sponsors have been put on the spot by the group Dream for Darfur, which issued a report card last year and is preparing to release another one soon.

Sports Business Journal, the weekly read widely by corporate sponsors, sports marketers and other sports business leaders, has reported extensively on the pressures on Olympic sponsors. (Disclosure note: From time to time, I write for Sports Business Journal.)

Advertising Age, the bible of that industry, wrote recently: “Ah, the Olympics. A chance to drape your brand in international pageantry, in the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and, in 2008, state-sponsored genocide and the repression of individual rights.”

This brand alignment — the under-siege Torch Relay and Coke, Lenovo and Samsung — can’t be good for business. Indeed, even Lenovo’s website, which touts the company’s sponsorship, has been trapped by the power of automated news feeds  . . . and it’s all about the protests.

Finally, my personal torch story
The first Torch Relay I saw was before the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. There was genuine excitement in Santa Monica as the torch arrived in the L.A. metro area a week before the Opening Ceremonies. I was surprised that Hollywood wasn’t more blasé.

I remember waiting to see who the first runner would be. I was thinking Hollywood to the max. And there he was, emerging from the Pacific Coast Highway, up a ramp, jogging through the early-morning ocean mist . . .

It was O.J. Simpson, when he was still a football star-turned-TV- announcer-and-bad actor, and long before he was an alleged-acquitted-ruined murder suspect and bad actor. Soon after, Tom Hayden, once a defendant in the fabled Chicago Seven trial after the 1968 Democratic Convention, ran a kilometer. Everybody wanted into the act.

Ever since, torch relays made me laugh. Until this year. This year’s has made me think.

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