It began with the Olympic flame. In all the controversy over the propaganda-fuelled progress of the torch towards Beijing, there has been little discussion of the modern origin of this ritual in the Berlin games of 1936. The current relay from Athens to the host city is largely a product of Nazi ideology. In the groundbreaking documentary film Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl memorably captured the flaming torch entering the swastika-bedecked stadium in Berlin. This is not the place to persuade those who argue that sport should not be politicized that every game under the sun (or floodlights) is always already political, merely a space to reflect that if this strand of the Olympic's global advertising campaign is abandoned for 2012, those Londoners who can still afford to remain in and around the Stratford area won't have to face a spectacle initially designed for Hitler.
Unlike our intrepid literary editor navigating the generic crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square as the flame struggled through the London leg of its optimistically titled 'Journey of Harmony', I watched the televised event from my sofa. It was a perspective bordering on what someone who had read too little Michel de Certeau would classify as the geometric-panoptic, granting me repeated viewings of the moment in Ladbroke Grove when a pro-Tibetan demonstrator attempted to grab the Promethean phallus from the diminutive former children's television presenter Connie 'Blue Peter' Huq. Regularly recycled throughout the live broadcast on BBC News 24, the footage of the smiling-then-startled Huq graced every news bulletin thereafter (replaced the following day by the lurid close-up of the bloodied face of a human rights campaigner in Paris). Afterwards Huq admitted that the event was marked by an atmosphere of intimidation, most forcefully embodied by the Great Wall of Chinese security agents perpetually guarding the flame. Lord Coe, the former Olympic champion turned Tory peer, reportedly called the Sacred Torch Guard Team 'thugs'. The Metropolitan police, less versed in the pulp lexicon of Sax Rohmer, unofficially dubbed them 'smurfs'.
At times the event became weirdly colour-coordinated. Almost invisible in the eye of the synchronized firestorm, successive torch-bearers wore matching red-and-white tracksuits (perhaps in a bid to promote unity between the participating sports personalities, minor celebrities, local worthies and corporate whores). The ring of smurfs immediately surrounding the torch, carefully selected from China's paramilitary police, wore blue-and-white versions of the torch-bearers outfit. Beyond them black-clad cops in stormtrooper mode interweaved with yellow fluoro-jacketed officers (some on mountain bikes, preferring two wheels to their Parisian blade runner counterparts). Surging around them were the flag-waving and banner-wielding demonstrators: mostly pro-Tibet with a few mobile pro-Chinese (the former regularly smashed to the ground if they got too close to the flame). In amongst them were journalists and photographers. If you let your eyes defocus, the oblique view of the crowds from the BBC helicopter overhead produced psychedelic fractal and flower patterns that constantly mutated into new forms because everyone kept breaking into a run. It was like an experimental dramatization of athletics designed to encourage the leagues of the obese lounging on British sofas to start jogging through the streets. It activated the same sense of determination to participate that arose the following week when I watched the London marathon from the same sofa.
As the marathon runners gathered on Blackheath and in Greenwich Park (yet more sports personalities, minor celebrities, local worthies and corporate whores), I reflected on the newly-minted two-pound coin in my pocket. The reverse of the coin was emblazoned with a logo celebrating the Olympic centenary year: a projected grid (that could be an athletics track or a wall of iron bars) isolates the numbers 1908. London was a sepia-toned city back then, uncertainly poised between the Victorian age of empire and the emergence of twentieth century industrial capitalism in all its global complexity. In less than a decade rapid technological advances would be redeployed to fill the map of Europe with unprecedented acres of young blood. But in the Edwardian capital in 1908, before the trenches filled with corpses from these same West London streets, an imperial impulse seemed to retain currency as the crowds gathered to watch the Games. The 26-mile marathon route from Windsor Castle to the newly built Olympic site in White City was extended 385 yards by royal request so that the finishing line would be located directly under the Royal Box within the stadium. This has since become the standard length for the marathon. A hundred years later, the 35 000 athletes and fundraisers in fancy-dress (superheroes, woodland creatures, a pair of apples, the odd Elvis or Santa, a Rhino and a girl on stilts), even six Masai warriors and a giant robot, were about to confront a route of exactly the same length.
Meanwhile, another closely-fought race is being run in London. In a campaign just as clumsy and cynical as that for the Democratic candidacy, the city is about to elect its Mayor. Like the other events this month, despite surface appearances, this race is also inherently political.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London
about Henderson Downing »»
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