Olympic Torch

7 April 2008

The Underpants of the Olympic Flame

By Gwynne Dyer

If I were the Chinese bureaucrat responsible for guarding the sacred Olympic Flame, the place I’d worry about most is Australia. It was there, just before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, that a student pretending to be an Olympic athlete ran up to the mayor of Sydney and presented him with an “Olympic torch” consisting of burning underpants in a can nailed on top of a chair leg. He was gone before they realised it was not the real thing.

His intention was to mock this pathetic neo-pagan ceremony that was originally invented by the Nazis to spice up the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The 1936 Olympics was Nazi Germany’s coming-out party, so Hitler’s people arranged for 3,442 racially pure Aryan runners to do a relay race with an “Olympic torch” along the 3,442-km. route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin.

There had never been a torch connected with the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, and the revived Games got along without an international relay race just fine for forty years before the Berlin Olympics of 1936 — but if there was one thing the Nazis did well, it was propaganda. Leni Reifenstahl even made a documentary film about how the torch came from Athens to Berlin (and within five years Hitler’s armies had occupied all the countries along the route).

This year’s Olympic Games were supposed to be Communist China’s coming-out-party, and the route is even more ambitious: twenty-one countries on all six inhabited continents. But that includes Australia, and I really wouldn’t send the torch there if I wanted to preserve China’s dignity. As England is the spiritual homeland of irony, so is Australia the world capital of mockery, and by the time the torch gets there (if it ever does) the Australians are going to feel challenged. It was burning underpants in 1956; what might it be in 2008?

The bar will have been set quite high by the time the torch reaches Canberra. After the propaganda triumphs for the “Free Tibet” movement in London, Paris and San Francisco the rain of humiliations for the Chinese regime may ease off for a while (although I wouldn’t guarantee the torch an easy ride in Buenos Aires, either). But after Dar es Salaam, Muscat and Islamabad, where they don’t care much about Tibet, comes New Delhi, where some people care a great deal.

There will be a lot of Tibetans in New Delhi, so the run there, if it happens, may resemble a low-intensity war. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta may be quiet, but then comes Canberra, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has already said that the blue-track-suited Chinese thugs who have jogged alongside the torch-bearers in other countries to fend off protesters will not be allowed to operate.

The “thug” description is courtesy of Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, who was overheard on the phone saying that the organisers should “get rid of those guys. They tried to push me out of the way three times. They are horrible….I think they were thugs.”

It has become a nightmare for the poor, doomed Chinese bureaucrats who set this thing up: constant humiliations if they carry on with the planned route (which also goes through Tibet itself!) and utter humiliation if they cancel it.

For the moment, they are brazening it out. “The Olympic flame belongs to the people around the world,” said Wang Hui, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, “so the behaviour of a few separatists would not gain sympathy from people and will cause strong criticism and is doomed to fail.” So far, though, I haven’t been hearing much criticism.

Never mind the silly torch, and the equally bizarre three-layer cake that is the actual Olympics Games of today. (An international athletics competition on the bottom, an orgy of nationalist self-congratulation in the middle, and a sickly-sweet pantomime of international love and brotherhood on the top.) What’s actually colliding here are two irreconcilable views of the world.

For almost all Chinese, the turmoil in Tibet is a threat to national unity. Only in the past century have Tibet and the Turkish-speaking, Muslim province of Sinkiang come to be seen as a necessary part of that national unity, but they are now. Chinese propaganda insists that the local people support that consensus, but it makes no difference if they don’t. They have to stay, because national unity is at stake.

For almost everybody else, China and Tibet is obviously a colonial relationship, and it’s perfectly natural for the Tibetans to seek independence. They won’t get it this time round, and they may never get it, but why would you be surprised that they try? Indeed, why wouldn’t you support them?

Foreign governments will never support Tibet’s independence, because they depend on China’s trade and they value “stability” in China above all else. Foreign individuals are under no such constraints, and the interminable, multi-national Tour of the Torch is giving them a lot of opportunities to show their feelings. It isn’t “anti-Chinese,” just pro-Tibetan, but there will be much anger and many hurt feelings by the time this is done.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“There had…route”; and “The thug…thugs”)

NOTE: This article is going out before the torch reaches San Francisco. If something extraordinary happens there, an update will be forthcoming.