“The flame’s journey serves the Olympic dramaturgy”

“The flame’s journey serves the Olympic dramaturgy”

As the Olympic flame arrives in France on May 8, in Marseille, Sylvain Bouchet, historian specializing in the Olympic Games and Antiquity, looks back on its meaning and the consequences of its passage on communities.

What significance does this strange ritual of the Olympic flame lit in Olympia and transported to the organizing country have?

Sylvain Bouchet: The first time a flame was lit in Olympia and transported to the stadium was for the Olympic Games (OG) in Berlin in 1936. So it was very special. It was a nod to Antiquity, but above all propaganda to legitimize the Third Reich, which was based on Germanic and Greek myths. Moreover, there was never a flame lit for the Olympic Games during Antiquity… There were torch races, little more. Other things explain the success over time of this flame tour. It is the only “free” and truly popular event for residents of the organizing country, as accommodation and event tickets are extremely expensive. It is also an opportunity to offer the world “postcard” images of the flame in picturesque sites across the country. And the flame's journey is accompanied by a countdown which serves the Olympic dramaturgy.

Do you think that there is a kind of euphoria and ego battle among politicians that pushes them to welcome the flame, despite its high cost (€180,000 paid by each department to the organization)?

It is certain that there is a political dimension. Elected officials want to highlight the arrival of the flame on their territory in their assessment. Or vice versa, reject it by highlighting other actions done with the money saved. The path of the flame often responds to specific reasons. In 2008, China passed the flame to Tibet and tried to do so in Taiwan. This was obviously for political reasons.

The stakes are considerable for the host country because these are the first images broadcast internationally. You shouldn't miss this deal. It's the first impression you offer. You set the tone. Even the Olympic torch is the first Olympic element we see.

Does the passage of the flame have economic benefits for a community?

Some hotels will be sold out because people will travel to see it. Local restaurateurs could also benefit. But these are also constraints for certain businesses; roads along the path of the flame will be closed.

In reality, CNN or Japanese TV will not show the depths of the French countryside. They will only broadcast images of already well-known sites, such as Mont Saint-Michel. A small town receiving the flame will not be known the same evening in Australia. Unless there is an incident, like a disguised person putting out the flame with a fire extinguisher.

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