Friday, 7 February 2014

OBJECT OF THE WEEK: THE OLYMPIC TORCH

BY KATHERINE HANNEMANN

As you read this blog post, are you decked out in your favourite Canadian team gear with the CBC’s Olympic opening ceremonies countdown playing in the background? If so, the featured object this week might have special meaning for you. In honour of tonight’s opening ceremonies of the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, the object of the week is none other than the Olympic torch.

The Sochi Torch. Source: Olympic.ca

The 2014 Olympic torch relay was the longest torch relay ever held in the history of the modern Olympics, stopping at more than 130 cities and towns across Russia – and traveling through the depths of the world's deepest lake, atop Europe’s highest mountain, and even in space. Olympic enthusiasts in Russia and around the world have been cheering on this ancient Grecian tradition in preparation for the Games. But the question must be asked: is everyone celebrating? And -- is this tradition really that ancient?

The torch in Lake Baikal. Source: CTV News

Regarding the latter question, the modern Olympic torch relay started during the Berlin1936 Summer Olympics (which is not necessarily the best representation of the “peace and friendship between peoples” that the torch relay is supposed to symbolize, but this may call for another blog post). The 1936 Olympics attempted to revive the ancient Grecian traditions of torch races, bringing another element of Greek mythology and romanticism to the modern Olympic Games, which started in 1896. The current tradition is to light the flame in Olympia, Greece, and transport it to the host country for the relay, though this practice only started with the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria. (At any rate, that’s the idea – though, as we’ve seen, this year’s Olympia flame may be supplemented with one from a cigarette lighter.)

With every new Olympics, a new Olympic torch is unveiled. So where do all those old Olympic torches go? As emerging museum professionals, you guessed it – into Olympic museums! To find a comprehensive collection of Olympic torches from Games throughout the 20th century, head to The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is the official museum of the Olympic movement. And there is an entire network of Olympic museums worldwide – so if you want to stay closer to home, try the Lake Placid Olympic Museum or the upcoming Richmond Olympic Experience (which, by the way, they’re “not calling a museum because that invokes an image of walking into a building and everything’s in cases”).

Torches at The Olympic Museum. Source: The Guardian

Still, though the torch relay and other semi-Grecian ephemera add pomp and circumstance to this international sporting event, at times the spectacle of the Olympics can seem ostentatious, over-the-top, and a deliberate distraction from what is really going on behind the scenes at the Olympics. It’s no secret that the Olympic torch relay (both in Russia and in previous host countries) has encountered many twists and turns along the way, coupling bombastic ceremony with corruption, politics, and doping, among other practices that are not necessarily conducive to the “Olympic spirit."

How will you watch the Olympics this year? Will you avoid the Games altogether out of distaste for the grandiose spectacle that they have become? Or will you try focus on the sporting events – the actual heart and soul of the Olympics – and root on your favourite Canadian athletes (ahem… Tessa and Scott)? Or will you, like me, be divided by an awe for the raw power and unbelievable capabilities of the human body with a simultaneous repulsion from the troubling hints of what’s behind the Olympic curtains?

However you do (or don’t) watch the Olympics, let us know what you think in the comments below – and join me in reviving the new tradition of the Superbowl snack stadium for the Olympic Games.

8 comments:

  1. I was listening to CBC this morning and of course the focus is on the Olympics (and what a special Olympics it is - if anyone is thinking about writing a dissertation about sports or cultural policy or communication or heritage, you got your self a great topic). It is interesting that the torch has not been discussed as much as before so it is wonderful to get this great historical account of olympic torches (and their museums :). The torch much be one of the longest sports-related traditions in human history and I do wonder if the museum touches on issues of torch technology (who makes the torch?) or even the politics of the torch (for example, how does the Olympic committee decide you carries it?).

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  2. Great post, Katherine! I think you've captured the thoughts of critical thinkers/athletics lovers everywhere when you say you are "divided by an awe for the raw power and unbelievable capabilities of the human body with a simultaneous repulsion from the troubling hints of what's behind the Olympic curtains." That is certainly the lens through which I watch the Olympics (though I'm the first to admit that I get sucked into many of the inspirational, nationalistic tropes deployed in full force throughout the games).

    Something that I'm interested in monitoring during the Sochi Games is the use of war metaphors to frame athletes and their sports. Concepts such as battles, struggles, warriors, and heroics often frame high-level sporting events, but are employed to an overwhelming degree during the Olympics. Of course, this year there is the added twist of Cold War ties.

    Drawing a connection to your wonderful object post, I'm fascinated by the emphasis placed on how far the torch has travelled -- could there be connections to the hero's journey to battle, à la The Iliad? I'm sure there are lots of interesting questions to ask. And, thanks to your post, I'm inspired to ask more questions about Olympic objects in addition to the Games themselves. Thanks for the stimulating post!

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  3. Thanks to both for your thoughtful comments. Lily, I will be watching for war metaphors: you're right to point out its connection to sporting events and there are so many parallels that have just come to mind! (That's an essay waiting to happen!)

    As for the other Olympic objects, check out some Olympic museums online to view their collections -- among my favourite objects are the shoes of athletes (inspired by "Out of the Box," perhaps?). In this case, I value the "authentic" object because it is somewhat mind-boggling to see a pair shoes and imagine how many miles they have traveled or how high they have jumped -- and by whom!

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  4. Despite the fact I don't typically follow the Olympics too closely, I really enjoyed your post about Olympic objects Katherine! Perhaps I just needed to find the right angle to approach this worldwide phenomenon in order to spark my interest ;) I can now say that I would actually really enjoy going to an Olympics museum/exhibition, as there is certainly no denying these objects have some amazing stories behind them. I saw a picture of the Sochi 2014 Olympic medals last night and I absolutely love them. I was just really struck by their patchwork quilt design and all the different symbols embedded in the medal. Again, in the past I had never given the medals much thought! But, like the torches, they change their design for each Olympics. The medals are like little Olympic Renaissance paintings with all sorts of hidden symbols and metaphors. How wonderful would it be to do a study on a selection of those? Great post Katherine!

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  5. There was a really great discussion about the cultural history of the olympics from a branding and technology perspective on The Age of Persuasion on Saturday, Feb. 8 in CBC. You can find the podcast if you are interested. It was a great account of how the Olympics became this incredibly global sports event due to different types of media technologies and different strategies of merging branding with sports (for example, there was a time when only 10% of the money spent for the Olympics came from private advertisers - believe it or not).

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  6. That's great, Irina, thanks for sharing the discussion! Here's the link where you can read the text (with images/video clips) or listen to the podcast: http://www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence/season-3/2014/02/08/marketing-the-olympics-1/

    During this Olympics, I'm excited not only to watch the athletes but also to hear very different cultural/economic perspectives on the Olympics such as this!

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  7. And for one more fun Olympic-related link: "A US Team Chef Shows His Own Competitive Spirit in Sochi" via the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/sports/olympics/us-ski-teams-can-now-order-in.html?hp&_r=0

    I found this story fascinating mainly because of the sheer logistics and coordination that it takes to feed an Olympic team -- or "a small army of Americans" -- who have very specific and demanding nutritional needs, especially before what would be the most defining competition of their lives. The food not only must be safe and nutritious, but must provide comfort to the Olympians before they compete.

    It was also interesting to hear the perspective of the head chef Allen Tran -- a very young chef, at that -- who leads the coordination and engages in some friendly cooking competition of his own in Sochi.

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  8. Fascinating story! I do not envy Chef Allen but I bet he gets to tell some pretty great stories after the Olympics is over :)

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