Olympic ceremony

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High-profile public occasions provide opportunities to celebrate particular values and achievements, as coronations have shown in relation to monarchies, and parliamentary rituals have demonstrated in relation to political democratic systems. Such events are rooted in forms of ceremony that are linked to established or invented traditions, recognizable symbols, and ritual performances. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's edited volume The Invention of Tradition (1992) conveys the strong political impact that such invented, and mass-produced, traditions can have, in creating collective bonds and, at the national level, boosting a sense of national belonging. The Olympic Games has provided the most prominent international sporting platform for such national traditions, but in a context of global international cooperation. The Olympics has sustained this profile in an uninterrupted fashion since 1896, and this has been made possible by the rituals and traditions on the basis of which it has conveyed the claimed meanings of Olympism to an expanding constituency of nations in a changing world. Among the most prominent of these objects and practices are the five-ring logo, the flame, the torch relay, the opening and closing ceremonies, the motto, and the truce.

The Olympic rings—in blue, yellow, black, green, and red—are said to symbolize the reach of the Games across the (main) five continents. They first appeared on the letterhead of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Games, in 1913. He took the idea from the symbol of two interlocking rings which had been used by the French sporting federation when it was formed from the merger of two organizations in 1892, and which was sported by French international athletes on their running jerseys from 1896 through to the 1920s (when replaced by the French Olympic Committee's fighting cock symbol). De Coubertin's 20th-anniversary Paris Congress of June 1914 featured the new symbol on a white background on the Olympic flags on display, and de Coubertin associated the five interlocked rings with the ‘five parts of the world won over to Olympism’, and claimed too that at least one of the five colours was in the national flag of each of the nations that had competed at the 1912 Stockholm Games. The Olympic flag was first flown at the 1920 Antwerp Games. It was not until 1929 that de Coubertin replaced ‘parts of the world’ with ‘continents’ (meaning Asia, Africa, Oceania, Europe, and the Americas), and since then the Olympic Charter has associated the rings with the continents. The five rings had first appeared on official Olympic posters in 1928, for the Winter Games at St Moritz and the Summer Games at Amsterdam. In the later history of the Games, the five rings have become one of the most lucrative marketing images, or branding logos, in the history of sport.

The Olympic flame was an initiative of the main organizer of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Dr Carl Diem. This theme of the torch relay carrying the flame from the site of the ancient Olympics to the stadium of the host city where it would then light the stadium flame has become a combination of community celebration, commercialization, and political posturing and protest. There was much controversy when the torch relay was first sponsored for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Greek National Olympic Committee protesting at what it saw as a soiling of the purity of Olympic ritual (even though the ritual dated only from the 1936 Games that became widely known as Hitler's ‘Nazi’ Games). In April 2008, protests against China's treatment of Tibet disrupted the Beijing Games' torch relay in London, Paris, and San Francisco, exposing the fragility of Olympic claims to bring nations together.


Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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