Sunday 15 December 2019

Paul Kelso: The torch begins its journey through Greece and on to Ireland, Britain and London

The torch lighting ceremony which took place in Greece
The torch lighting ceremony which took place in Greece

ON Wednesday, as final rehearsals for the lighting ceremony took place amid the tumbledown columns and olive groves, schoolchildren ran impromptu foot races from the same grooved marble start line into which those early heroes curled their toes.

At its most basic, Sebastian Coe’s mission is to use the London Olympic Games to inspire similar enthusiasm and today he will take part in a ceremony he hopes will accelerate Britain’s slow-burning enthusiasm for the Games.

The torch relay has no direct links to antiquity. The only flames that burned at Olympia’s Games were in cauldrons at each corner of the stadium, lit to discourage the swarms of insects drawn by 40,000 spectators to a five-day event that was part-Woodstock, part World Championships.

The entire ceremony is a confection, a ritual dreamt up by Nazi propagandists for the 1936 Games and which now constitutes a marketing tool for the International Olympic Committee and its sponsors. The High Priestess who will light the flame from the sun’s rays on Thursday is a classical actress from Athens, the dancing and music are choreographed and the entire event will be streamed online.

It is synthetic symbolism, and London’s challenge is to transform it into something tangible that justifies the public investment – financial and emotional – in the 2012 Games.

Coe is adamant it can be done, and will invoke the values of Pierre de Coubertin, whose heart is buried in Olympia, to revive the Games.

“Through this unique location we are able to connect the ancient Games and the modern Games,” he will say in his address on Thursday. “This ceremony reminds us of the core mission and responsibility of London 2012 — to inspire young people. We will place young people at the centre of our torch relay, just as De Coubertin placed young people at the centre of his Olympic vision.”

Coe’s pledge will be emphasised when young Alex Loukos from Newham but with a Greek father, becomes the second torch bearer. The 19 year-old was part of the victorious 2012 bid delegation in Singapore seven years ago, and will be the only Briton to carry the flame in Greece: “I just hope I don’t let the country down,” he said on Wednesday.

Olympia in a Peloponnese spring is an easy place to be optimistic about the Games. The torch relay might be an invention but the site – where athletes gathered every four years from 776 BC to 394 AD – is not. If ever the values so readily bandied by the Olympic movement are going to resonate, it is here.

But Olympia is also only four hours from Athens, a city consumed by the despair at the economic crisis, and still struggling to escape the shadow of the 2004 Olympics, the ultimate symbol of national excess.

If Greece’s ancient Olympics are an inspiration to London, 2004 could have been a portent from the gods. The mistakes made here have served as a lesson of how not to organise a Games and, in particular, the importance of planning the legacy.

The 2004 Athens Games cost €8-€10 billion — the true number has been obscured by posthumous political accounting – much of it on infrastructure that has enhanced the city. The new airport, roads, metro system and communications technology fast-tracked for the Olympics remain in use.

But Athens is also dotted with white elephants, venues that fell into disuse once the flame went out because of a lack of planning. The main stadium is in regular use by Athens’s football clubs AIK and Panathinaikos, the tennis complex is now a private club, and the velodrome is used by the national cycling federation, but these are the exceptions. Across the city baseball and hockey facilities stand unused, the Helliniko complex is in disrepair, the weightlifting complex unused since 2004, and the 8,000-seat table tennis arena is empty.

Spyros Capralos, the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee who was chief operating officer of the 2004 organising committee, admits that mistakes were made.

“Of course, we made errors because of a lack of planning, but you cannot blame the economic crisis on the Olympics as some try to. It cost maybe €8 billion, which is a fraction of the €360 billion national deficit,” he says from his office overlooking the main stadium. “It is a great view and we have a great building, but that is all we have left. The party is definitely over.”

Capralos regrets the wasted opportunity of 2004, but he has more immediate problems to face. The government cut its €30 million annual funding to the HOC in 2009, devastating the national sporting infrastructure and meaning Greece will send a smaller team to London, no more than 100 athletes, than it sent to Beijing.

The water polo team and long-distance swimmers are only able to train for London because the HOC owns a 50 metre pool. All the others in Athens have been closed because local authorities cannot afford the fuel to run them. Until then it is reliant on sponsors and the IOC, which has helped fund this week’s domestic torch relay.

“The athletes have only been able to train and qualify for the Games with the help of our private sponsors,” Capralos said. “Without that money we would be dead.”

London watched Greece’s nightmare unfold and planned accordingly. They have built temporary arenas where possible, and six of the eight venues in the Olympic Park have secure futures. The stadium and the media centre are the exceptions.

Like the torch, London has a long way to go. But, like Olympia, it is not a bad place to start.

What happens to the flame now?

MAY 10 The torch is lit using the sun’s rays in ancient Olympia at 9.30am. The first torchbearer, Greek open-water swimmer Spyros Gianniotis, departs at 10.25am.

MAY 11-16 The torch travels around Greece, visiting Crete, Thessalonika, Piraeus, Xanthi and Larissa before arriving in Athens, where it is welcomed at a special ceremony at the Acropolis.

MAY 17 The handover ceremony takes place at the Panathenaic Stadium before the Locog delegation take the flame back to the UK.

MAY 18 The 70-day UK and Irish leg of the torch relay begins at Land’s End at 6am, with 8,000 people involved.

JULY 27 The flame arrives at the Olympic Stadium in London. The Games begin.

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