Some thoughts on the Olympic torch relay

The Olympic torch relay from Olympia in Greece to Sydney in Australia was the largest and longest since the first torch relay was organised for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. AMP, the insurance group, was the main sponsor but Ansett, Holden, Harley-Davidson, IBM and Shell Australia all played major roles.

The relay convoy consisted of about 50 vehicles: jets, prime movers, motor homes, vans, police motorcycles and cars. In 100 days and over 27,000 kilometres the flame was carried by 11,0000 torchbearers and involved 2,500 escort runners and hundreds of thousands from local communities acting in a support capacity. It passed near 85 percent of the Australian population—over deserts, down ski lifts and even under the water. More interesting, however, was the enthusiasm and warmth of broad sections of the population who turned out to cheer, applaud and support.

Something was touched in the populace and it is worthwhile to try and understand how and why this happened. Events such as these are so public they take on the quality of a Rorschach inkblot test—a screen for projected thoughts and feelings, for hopes and dreams.

The planning of the torch relay goes back two years and was mostly organised by AMP. The company appointed 200 “Torch Ambassadors” from its ranks—either financial planners or staff—to form Local Community Working Groups with the various communities.

These groups decided who would run, where they would run, the type of celebrations, etc. Obviously, a fair bit of horse-trading took place: promises were called in, debts paid out and so on. One imagines that the appointment of International Olympic Committee vice-president Kevin Gosper's daughter to be the first Australian runner in Greece was typical of the process.

But “famous nobodies” were also included from local areas, many of whom gained inclusion due to popular acclamation and support. This highlights an important contradiction within the event: the interests of business and the state apparatus versus the interests of ordinary people.

On the one hand the major sponsors were involved to boost their profits. They received free advertising in the form of global media coverage. For AMP there was also the high community profile it gained and the opportunity to try and put some distance between it and the popular and entirely accurate charges of “heartless corporatism”. And for the state there were the benefits of a distracted population: a “free” spectacle and the reinforcement of various national myths, including the ideology of a “fair go for all”.

On the other side there was the genuine warmth and support of masses of people for the relay. Here there were various factors at work that deserve closer examination. Firstly, the dullness of life for the majority. Most people are forced into such dead-end, mind-numbing routines, with little or no hope in sight, that almost any event will brighten their day. Another aspect was the legitimate desire of broad layers to make their lives count, to make history.

However, there were two relays going on—the official and the unofficial—and for the most part they proceeded peacefully enough. Only when pressure was applied did cracks appear.

Reports of especially rough treatment directed against those who attempted to temporarily hijack the torch, and the incident with Aleesha Shaw at Narara in New South Wales, were cases in point. Here the gap between the reality of the corporatism and the myth of the “people's games” stood clearly revealed.

Shaw was celebrating her 11th birthday and her parents asked one of the local torchbearers—1972 Olympic swimmer Neil Martin—to pretend to light her birthday cake candles, after he had passed on the flame, with his now unlit torch.

“All hell broke loose,” Aleesha's father said. “[T]he policeman jumped out, grabbed the candle and Aleesha's arm was dragged down. He then turned and blew on the torch as if to put it out and escorted Martin into the waiting bus. We were all in shock and Aleesha started to cry. It was a real security overkill.”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a spokeswoman for SOCOG declared that the rules forbade the lighting of any object with the torch. “A birthday cake may seem like a simple thing, but if you let this happen here it will be happening everywhere,” she said.

In a way this was representative of the whole relay. What the organisers viewed with alarm was the interference of the everyday person—even an 11-year-old girl—in this carefully stage-managed performance. Those who stepped outside the boundaries, who tried to make it backstage, as it were, were given a swift kick and a curse.