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How the opening ceremony reflects the Olympic spirit

Interview: Kate MüserAugust 2, 2016

Hitler did not invent the torch relay and doped athletes should be mentioned, according to Ancient Greek tradition. Sport historian Manfred Lämmer clears up myths about the Olympic opening ceremony.

Olympic rings as seen in Turin, 2006, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: The modern Olympic Games were inspired by the Ancient Greeks. To what extent is that also true of the modern opening ceremony?

Prof. Dr. Manfred Lämmer: Not really at all. Nothing is known about an opening ceremony ahead of the ancient Olympic Games. But there are a few procedures that took place ahead of the actual competitions that resulted from the fact that they where embedded in the Zeus cult.

The ancient athletes spent four weeks ahead of time in the host city Elis - located about 40 kilometers from Olympia - where they trained and received their accreditation from the Olympic authorities. Then they traveled with their personnel, the referees and other officials to Olympia, where they swore the Olympic oath, which was the only really big ceremony. The athletes swore that their personal data was correct and that they would abide by the Olympic rules. The referees also had to swear that they would be unbiased in all of their decisions and preserve confidentiality.

Considering the current doping discussion with Russia, it's interesting that these kinds of ethical athletic values were transferred from ancient times.

That is significant. First of all, the ancient competitors, at least in the Classical period, had to be Greek by blood. The ancient Olympic Games were not international, but were strictly national. They had to make a sacrifice to Zeus as an affidavit of their heritage, since it was otherwise very difficult to prove.

Prof. Dr. Manfred Lämmer
Prof. Dr. Manfred LämmerImage: privat

The second thing was that they had to swear to Zeus that they would abide by the rules. At the same time, that meant submitting to the god's sanctions when rules were broken. These sanctions were pronounced in the name of Zeus by the Olympic Council, which was a kind of IOC.

When the athletes entered the stadium, they saw on their left side a large number of Zeus statues. The athletes that broke the Olympic rules, either through bribery or match fixing, had to erect those statues. It that were to happen today, that would mean that those who've been involved in the biggest doping and corruption cases would have to be remembered at the opening ceremony.

You said that the ancient Games were a national affair, while the modern Olympics are a sign of international understanding. I'm thinking of the year 1920, when the Olympic flag was introduced as a peace symbol after World War I. Is the opening ceremony an expression of the contemporary political situation?

The political situation is always reflected in the opening ceremony - particularly in the protocolary portion. The flag with the five Olympic rings was raised for the first time in 1920, but it had already been presented in 1914 at Olympic Congress in Paris. If the 1916 Games in Berlin hadn't been canceled, it would have decorated the opening ceremony there.

Let's talk about Berlin in 1936, the year in which Hitler introduced the famous torch relay. What is Hitler's Olympic legacy?

I have to pour some cold water on that. They weren't Nazi Games, they were Games that took place under a National Socialist government. The 1936 Olympics have generated countless myths, including the legend that the Führer invented the torch relay. An Olympic fire burned already in 1928 and 1932 in the stadiums in Amsterdam and Los Angeles as a symbol of purity and pursuit of perfection. In 1936, another element of show was added to the tradition.

Carl Diem, the Secretary General of the Games and a great admirer of the antiquity, had the idea of not just lighting the fire with a match, but transporting it symbolically from antiquity to modernity, in order to apostrophize the Olympic idea as an eternal gift of the Greek spirit. The one who then worked out the details was actually the Jewish archaeologist Alfred Schiff, who worked for Diem in the organizational committee.

Shortly after World War II, it was clear that the victors were very sensitive to what had happened in 1936. When London hosted the Games in 1948, the Brits found the symbolism of the torch relay extraordinarily fitting and beautiful and didn't even think of not including it. Carl Diem was even asked to serve as a consultant. In 1948, he was the only German who was invited to the Olympic Games in London.

Olympic opening ceremony, Barcelona 1992, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/D. Emmert
Barcelona in 1992 was one of four Olympic opening ceremonies Lämmer says were pivotalImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Emmert

The idea of the torch relay wasn't publicly revived for the first time in London in 1948, but in 1944 in Palestine of all places. A student of Carl Diem's, Ernst Simon, and his colleagues introduced a torch relay which, nowadays at the opening of the Maccabiah Games, runs from the Maccabis' graves into the Maccabi Stadium. Even in a country that most certainly would not have followed a German example, this torch relay was not seen as being politically charged.

The IOC stipulates a long protocol for the opening ceremony. What exactly would it like to communicate to the audience with that?

We have to look back at the original idea of Pierre de Coubertin [Eds: founder of the IOC and co-initiator of the Olympic Games]. With the Olympic Games and his dictum "All games, all nations," he didn't want a collection of world championships, but emphasized again and again that he wanted an Olympic festival with symbols, ceremonies and celebration. As long as he was in charge, he didn't tire of constantly expanding the character of the Games. That included the art competitions he introduced in 1912, the Olympic flag with the rings, the Olympic motto "Citius-Altius-Fortius" (faster-higher-stronger), and the Olympic hymn.

What sets the Olympic Games apart from other large sport events is that they are embedded in art and culture and a festive production. That is what Pierre de Coubertin wanted, although he was only successful before World War I in Stockholm. Also during the Weimar period, his idea was hardly visible, neither in destroyed Antwerp in 1920 nor in Paris in 1924 or in Amsterdam in 1928.

In 1932, the Americans developed the protocol somewhat into a show, but it was still fairly reserved. The first Olympic Games in which the competitions, the protocol and the entire artistic presentation were coalesced into a "Gesamtkunstwerk" were the Games in Berlin.

After that, Pierre de Coubertin said that those Games had achieved the form that he'd always imagined. In appreciation, he had his entire estate sent to Berlin to the newly founded International Olympic Institute. Unfortunately, all the documents were destroyed in a British air strike in September 1943.

Olympic opening ceremony, Beijing 2008, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/P. Ugarte
As beautiful as Beijing's 2,008 drummers were, the show didn't express the Olympic idea, says LämmerImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Ugarte

In Beijing in 2008, 2,008 drummers took to the stage, and in London in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II appeared to float down into the Olympic stadium with a parachute. Would Pierre de Coubertin find this kind of entertainment exaggerated? What is your opinion?

When we look at the developing of the opening ceremony apart from the protocol, there have been four Olympic Games that have brought the development of the ceremony to a new level: Berlin in 1936, Munich in 1972, Barcelona in 1992, and Beijing in 2008.

In 1972, the integration of art and culture by Willi Daume [Eds: President of the National Olympic Committee for Germany from 1961-1992] was one-of-a-kind: the side program in Munich, the entire art and culture program, the science conference, the exhibitions in the Deutsches Museum, the so-called Spielstrasse [Eds: An idea developed for the Munich Olympics, where artistic platforms were integrated into the athletic venues], etc. I was participating as a young assistant at the time. Daume devoted much more attention to these aspects than to the competitions themselves.

It's already been reported that Rio's cultural program has been cut. Do you still expect the opening ceremony to uphold the Olympic spirit?

What distinguishes Munich and Berlin was the Olympic message in its contemporary complexion. As beautiful as the acrobatic and theatrical feats in Sochi and Beijing were, they didn't fulfill the core idea. I don't want to speculate on what will happen in Rio de Janeiro. But what's clear is that the opening ceremony is usually a presentation of the host country's own culture and national identity. And that is legitimate. It's perfectly fine to show the athletes and spectators the country in which the Olympic Games are taking place. The more similar the protocol and the more standardized the venues become - somewhere a color has to become apparent that is associated with the host.

Sport historian Prof. Dr. Manfred Lämmer has focused his research on the history and ideology of the modern Olympic movement, sport in the Greek-Roman antiquity and sport in Jewish history. He is a co-initiator of the German Sport and Olympic Museum in Cologne and of the German Olympic Institute in Berlin. Prof. Dr. Lämmer was formerly the President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and long-time Vice-President of the German Olympic Society. For over three decades, he participated in preparing the Olympic Games for the German National Olympic Committee and served as NOC President Willi Daume's personal consultant from 1980-1981.