For me the highlight of the fire ceremony at Olympia last week was the sacred flame blowing out.
Just as the rituals were reaching a climax of arm waving and chanting, out it went. The girl carrying the lamp looked despondent, as if Zeus had just given her the sack.
Thank goodness for that, I thought. The ceremony reminded me of all those hammy productions of Greek tragedies I had to sit through doing Greek A-level.
So was this just an ill-timed breath of wind, an inauspicious beginning for London 2012 or simply nature’s verdict on the Greek economy? More likely it was divine disapproval for taking the rituals of the old deities in vain.
There’s no doubt, I think, that fire played a part in the old games. Fire – the stuff Prometheus had stolen from Zeus to give to mankind – was a peculiarly human possession, and the nurturing of a sacred flame throughout the course of each Olympics was testimony to its significance.
But it stayed in one spot. The idea of parading it all over the place comes with the modern games. Beware of any ceremony described in the papers as “ancient”; it’s almost invariably not.
As for the idea of kindling fire in Olympia and then carrying it to the host city, I’m afraid this has rather sinister origins.
If you’re heading out to welcome the torch through your town, bear in mind that the idea began at the so-called “Nazi Olympics” of 1936. The invention is attributed to Carl Diem (did he have a brother called Carpe?), the secretary general of the Berlin organising committee.
What better way to link the Berlin Games with their origins in Olympia, thought Diem, than to bear fire from one to the other? And how better, thought others, to demonstrate the triumph of the Arian race than to link the two civilisations with a path of fire.
According to the cod European history invented by Nazi propagandists, Ancient Greece had been settled by Germanic peoples in the first place. In 1936, by way of a procession of torches, the Olympics were simply – as we sang at Euro 96 – “coming home”.
* Dr Chris Upton is looking for his lighter at Newman University College in Birmingham