For the 1988 Seoul Olympics flame relay, the torch-bearer outfit was just a bit dorky, what with the white headband and white gloves. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the occasion for its use.
Likewise, I heartily endorse the relay’s traditional starting point in ancient Olympia, site of the original Olympic competition in 776 B.C. As the relay commenced its latest iteration days ago, leading to the Rio de Janeiro Games in August, it was an agreeable reminder of how reporting assignments for Newsday—and serendipity—afforded me entrée into those rare spaces.
Among the lessons in covering 11 Olympics was how the torch relay, among the semi-religious rituals of the Games, can sometimes seem hopelessly idealistic, almost simple-minded. As sure as there is universal brotherhood and care-free escape from real-world problems, there also is jingoism and political agendas, rampant commercialism and too-frequent doping.
The torch relay, in fact, has its roots in Adolph Hitler’s malicious Aryan supremacy scheme; it was he who cooked up the idea of marching the Olympic fire publicly through other nations toward the 1936 Berlin Games as a propaganda tool. Subsequent Olympic organizers were not above shooing various protesters or the homeless away from the relay’s path for the best possible reflection of themselves. Still, it is difficult to hold a candle to the Olympic flame’s optimism, how it has come to stand for international sport as an instrument of peace and righteousness.
As for the Games’ initial playing field—250 miles from Athens, where a cook named Coroibos raced and won the first Olympic event 2,792 years ago—I discovered during the 2004 Olympics that the place isn’t much more than a clearing surrounded by hills covered with olive, cypress, pine and eucalyptus trees.
The ancient “stadium”—from the Greek “stadion,” which is a “place to stand”—consists simply of a grassy berm around a rectangular, hard-clay field, 210 yards long and roughly 40 yards wide. There is not so much to see there as there is to feel, ghosts and whispers through 85 generations.
There remains a stone arch at the field’s edge, through which the ancient Olympians passed from the Sanctuary of Olympia, location of the Temple of Zeus that was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. What’s left of the temple resembles picnic grounds at a state park. Except, instead of tables and barbeque pits, there are a few classic ruins.
So it is the whiff of infinity that gives Olympia and the torch relay their weight, and therefore does wonders for cutting through any cynicism. When organizers of the Athens Olympics chose to set the 2004 Games’ shot put competition at Olympia, the clash of the ancient and the modern was obvious enough: While electronic scoreboards, public address announcements, sponsorship signage, concessions and other 21st Century trappings were kept completely out of sight, there was no avoiding the small crowd of reporters and photographers—myself among them—sitting in shady spots on the berm, working on our laptop computers.
The experience of Being There was as memorable as running a one-kilometer leg (not quite three quarters of a mile) of the 1988 torch relay and feeling a bit like Prometheus, delivering the gift of fire. Or Pheidippides, carrying the news of victory at Marathon.
It was my dumb luck that one of the major international sponsors of those Games employed a New York public relations executive who worked closely with my sports editor, Dick Sandler, and was among the relay planners seeking to include an Everyman or two among the 1,539 Olympic champions and celebrities to bear the torch through South Korea, from the southeastern border city of Pusan to Seoul, over 21 days.
My assigned kilometer, two days before the Opening Ceremonies, was in the western port city of Inchon on Sept. 15—a place and date freighted with relevant history. It was in Inchon, precisely 38 years before, that Gen. Douglas MacArthur led a landing of allied troops that split the invading Communist enemy, considered a crucial turning point in the Korean War.
Photographer Don Norkett, among my Newsday colleagues covering the Seoul Games, had fought in that war and recalled how the Korean peninsula was turned in a moonscape of tree stumps and rubble in the early 1950s—a dramatic contrast to the bustling, giddy days of the 1988 Olympics.
To be a torch runner at those Games was a passport to acceptance by complete strangers, halfway around the world. Awaiting my turn to tote the flame, I had local mothers put their babies in my arms to snap pictures. Older women bowed and said annyong haseyo—hello. City officials in blue business suits appeared with handshakes, while a procession of musicians, banging drums and cymbals and wearing headdresses and robes, offered their nong ak, an ancient music of the rice paddy workers after a long day in the fields. I had learned approximately five phrases in Korean, yet was graciously informed at one point that I had “a good Korean accent.”
(Highly unlikely.) But, wow. Thank you. Gamsahamnida.
The spectators along the torch route formed a corridor of glee, shouting through laughter, waving, holding aloft little Korean flags, apparently unable to stop themselves from ear-to-ear smiling. There also was a handful of crew-cut Anglo-Saxons who, when asked if they were American GIs, replied good naturedly (typically), “Who wants to know?”
I should skip the embarrassing part, of having tripped on one of those small reflectors in the middle of the road during my relay leg. The resulting scuffed knee prompted Time Magazine’s Tom Callahan, in his account of the pre-Olympic celebrations, to slyly note that I finished my run “covered in mercurochrome.”
But the torch was kept aloft as I immediately scrambled to my feet and continued on, handing off to a Mrs. Cho Suk Jae of Inchon for the next kilometer. The flame did not go out.
Since then, as before, the Olympics has experienced its brushes with imperfection, scandal and violence. This summer, for Brazil’s turn hosting the festival, potential trouble already is lurking, given that nation’s economic, health and political crises. Beyond the shrinking Gross National Product and Olympic cost overruns that could reach $17 billion, there is the alarming Zika virus and the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff.
Given all that, as Callahan wrote at the end of the ’88 Games, “exalting the athletes…is tricky. It requires an ability to squint a little and forget a lot, to gild a lot.”
Nevertheless, I remain loyal to the Olympic model, the possibilities of goodwill through global sport. In the ancient Games, women were not allowed, yet at Olympia in 2004, both the men’s and women’s shot put were contested, and the women went first.
Very first, at the 8:30 a.m. qualifying round that day, was Californian Kristin Heaston. She didn’t do well enough to advance to the afternoon finals. But she said, “I’ll have this forever. It’s pretty cool. Pretty cool.”
Pretty cool, indeed. Pass it on.