Misjudgement of Olympic proportions

IT'S travelled by camel and canoe, on horseback, by Concorde and via satellite. It's been kept alight underwater on the Great Barrier Reef and this year will burn the thin air of Everest.

Aidan Semmens

IT'S travelled by camel and canoe, on horseback, by Concorde and via satellite. It's been kept alight underwater on the Great Barrier Reef and this year will burn the thin air of Everest.

In 1992 it was lit by a burning arrow fired by a disabled archer. In 1976 it blew out and was re-lit with a cigarette-lighter.

It's been around the world umpteen times and on April 6 it will parade through London on its way to China, where it will flicker over the summer Beijing Olympics.

Of course it will make its way back here again in time for the 2012 Games.

Talk about wasted fuel, hot air and air-miles. If there's a more overblown, vainglorious symbol than the Olympic torch I can't think of it right now.

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If you're tempted to respond to that by reaching for some cliché about world peace, human togetherness or any other aspect of the alleged “Olympic spirit”, you might consider this:

The torch relay made its debut at the 1936 Berlin Games, where it was a key element in a ritual devised for the glorification of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

It fitted in perfectly with Hitler's sense of grand, staged drama as exemplified by the Nazis' thunderous torchlit rallies at Nuremberg.

Other host countries since, including Britain in 1948, have not been quite so evil in conception and intent. But glorification of nations and their leaders has always been high on the Olympic agenda.

Why else should politicians such as our own dear Tony Blair have been so eager to bring the Games to their homelands? Especially given the astronomical cost of staging the event and the uncertainty of ever recouping the outlay.

Were you in favour of bringing the 2012 Games to England? If so, why?

Was it in hope of a massive cash investment to regenerate London's run-down East End? (If that happens, where exactly is the cash coming from?)

Was it because you look forward to being able to attend the table-tennis, the clean-and-jerk or the showjumping?

Or was it out of some curious, ill-defined sense of national pride?

Whichever it was, I hope you enjoy the opening ceremony with its circus tricks, synchronised prancing, light show - and especially the inevitable speechifying by the Queen (or King Charles).

Blair, who will no doubt consider it part of his glorious legacy, will probably hope to be in on the act too. He may have to console himself that Gordon Brown, David Cameron or whoever is PM by then is also left to grin from the sidelines.

In the meantime, it's the turn of President Hu Jintao's Chinese regime to bask in the international glow.

A somewhat ironic turn of a regime that carefully guards its own citizens from the cultural pollution of the internet and Western media yet enjoys the spotlight thrown by the Olympic flame.

The turn of the world's one remaining major Communist power to sit for a while at the head of capitalism's sporting table - and maybe benefit from a bit of capitalist investment too.

The downside for the Chinese (if they care) is the opportunity the Games, and especially the torch relay, offer to Western protesters.

The flame's eight-hour procession through London on Sunday week is expected to draw huge crowds.

I can't imagine why it should. I should think you'd have to be pretty stumped for something to do of a Sunday afternoon to turn out for such an empty, contrived non-event.

But assuming the public do indeed turn out in force it will be a great chance for assorted celebs such as Steve Redgrave (at least he's a genuine Olympian), the glamorous violinist Vanessa-Mae, cricketer Kevin Pietersen and newsreader Trevor McDonald to parade their egos.

Likewise it will provide an audience for legitimate protests against China's appalling human rights record in their own land and others.

Not that any such protests are likely to reach TV screens in Beijing, Shanghai - or Tibet.

Aussie Neil Fergus, whose company is using expertise gained at Sydney 2000 to “advise” the Beijing organisers, is appalled at the prospect of demonstrations.

He said: “It is reprehensible that anyone should use the torch for political ends.”

So what sort of ends do you think it was devised for, Neil? (See “Hitler” above).

He added: “It worries me that the relay will be discontinued because of this nonsense.”

What nonsense can he mean? A few banners and slogans on the streets of London?

Or the brutal exercise of Chinese state power on the streets of Tibet and Darfur?

Set against such life-and-death matters, a flaming torch - or a handful of sporting medals - seem pretty small beer to me.