Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Olympic Alphabet : T is for ...


Today is a very important Olympic anniversary. On this day 80 years the very first Olympic torch relay began. While the 1936 Berlin Olympics has gone down in history as one of the most political, there can be no doubt that subsequent torch relays have produced some of the most popular and inclusive of all Olympic celebrations. As the old joke says - if Hitler was alive today he’d be turning in his grave!!!

Let’s have a look at the lgbt heritage of the Olympic torch relay.

The ancient Olympics never had a torch relay. They did have an Olympic flame which burned continuously at the site of the games in Olympia (see my “City Pride” article on Olympia). Other Greek states held games as well, and some of them had torch relays. The most famous of these was at the Greater Panathenaean Games in Athens. It was this that inspired Carl Deim, the German academic and Olympic enthusiast, to recreate the relay for the 1936 Berlin games.

There had been Olympic flames of some sort at previous modern Olympics, perhaps as early as the closing ceremony of the Stockholm games in 1912. The 1928 Amsterdam Olympics had a special-designed stadium with a tower on which a fire could burn like a beacon. The most familiar of these early flame towers was at the next summer games in Los Angeles in 1932. Older readers may remember it was used again at the 1984 Olympics (more of that particular ceremony later).

The idea of the torch relay came to Carl Deim during a visit with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the site of Olympia. It was also then that the act of lighting the torch by the rays of the sun was decided. That decision is even marked by a plaque referring to the “Appolonean light”, a reference to Apollo, the Greek god of the Sun.

Once all the preparations were made, relay runners selected, torches constructed, and ceremonies rehearsed, the very first Olympic torch lighting ceremony took place at Olympia on this day, 20th July, in 1936. The ceremony was not organised by the German Olympic committee but the Greek, and has remained virtually unchanged ever since.

As today, the torch made its way to Athens to the stadium which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, the Panathenaika Stadium which was enlarged by Herodes Atticus in 140. The ceremonial handover from the Greek Olympic committee to the host nation committee is now held there.

The most recent handover ceremony on 17th April this year included an lgbt landmark. One of the Greek athletes chosen to run around the track before the handover was the gay gymnast Ioannis Melissanidis. He won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – the first Greek gymnast to win a medal since the first modern games in 1896. Because of this, and the fact that he’s Greek of course, he has run in more Olympic torch relays than any other lgbt person – Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016. All of these have been as part of the Greek leg before the handover. In the Athens games he was the penultimate torch bearer, leaping around the track with undisguised enthusiasm, at the opening ceremony. It’s the nearest a member of the lgbt community has got to lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Which brings me back to Los Angeles 1984. The cauldron on that day was lit by Rafer Johnson, but the organising committee had a reserve on hand, Caitlyn Jenner. She had been one of the sporting heroes who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium a little earlier, and underneath her uniform she wore her running gear just in case she was needed at the last minute.

Caitlyn Jenner has run in two torch relays – Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996. When Caitlyn was hitting the headlines during her transition in 2015 her 1984 torch also made the news. It was sold at auction by its then owner for the sum of $24,000, twice the amount torches usually sell by. The Director of Sports Auctions said “Perhaps no athlete in history has travelled a more winding road through the various states of celebrity than Jenner … This torch serves as a wonderful symbol that masculinity and femininity are not mutually exclusive.”

Despite its symbolic power as an emblem of peace the Olympic torch relay has not been without controversy, most famously during the Beijing 2008 relay. Many protests against China’s treatment of Tibet and human rights in general appeared in many places the torch passed. It was the problem of security that made IOC decide that no more round-the-world torch relays would be held.

In April 2008 lgbt performer k d lang spoke at a pro-Tibet rally in Canberra. The leader of Australia’s Green Party and openly gay MP Bob Brown also made a speech. On that day three lgbt runners took part in the relay through Canberra – Olympic swimming great and multi-medallist Ian Thorpe, Jonothan Welch (2008 Australian of the Year and conductor of several lgbt orchestras and choirs), and Andrew Heslop (founder of Neighbour Day, a popular Australian holiday).

A previous protest during the torch relay was held in 1996, which I describe here. The most recent high profile protest was during the 2014 Sochi relay. With Russia’s anti-gay legislation still on people’s minds many called for a boycott of the games. Russian lgbt activist Pavel Lebechev, however, chose to protest by proudly unveiling a Rainbow Pride flag and running behind the torch as it passed through his home town. He was arrested.

Let’s end with a message of inclusion in the torch relay. Even though Caitlyn Jenner was the first transgender relay runner she had not transitioned. On 10th May this year the first post-transition transgender runner took part in the Rio torch relay. She was Bianka Lins, and was selected specifically to represent the transgender community of Brazil.
Bianka Lins (right) passes on the Olympic flame after her leg of the
Rio de Janeiro torch relay on 10 May 2016.
As the torch relay gets ever closer to the opening ceremony it remains to be seen if the Olympic flame can spread the message of inclusion and equality in sport.

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