Q. Isn’t there something pagan about the Olympic torch and all the hype that it has created?A. On one level there is a great deal to be said against the concept of the torch relay. It originated under pagan auspices, and its modern revival in Nazi Germany was motivated by paganism of a different and worse kind. But carrying the torch through so much territory and involving so many people en route has created a sense of excitement and participation and it is unfair to judge it harshly.
The real problem is with the Olympics themselves. Not with sport: our Jewish ancestors included athletes of many kinds, told parents to teach their children to swim, and believed that physical health was the partner of mental vigour. However, they strongly objected to what went with Greek and Roman athletics – immodesty (because sportsmen played naked, some tried to disguise the fact that they had been circumcised), frivolity and cruelty, including throwing people to the lions.
The First Book of Maccabees gives us ample evidence that what accompanied the games could not be reconciled with Jewish standards of morality and decency. The historian Josephus records that one of the reasons for Jewish antagonism towards King Herod was that the king established his own five-yearly games in honour of Caesar and called one of his daughters Olympia.
In 1896, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin inaugurated the modern version of the Olympic Games, he believed the games would foster international brotherhood and harmony. The history of the 20th century games has shown how far the reality has fallen short of the ideal. Germany was associated with two of the worst episodes: the Berlin Olympics of 1936 with their overtones of racial superiority, and the Munich Olympics of 1972, which brought international terrorism into the sports arena. Thereafter there has been a whole series of Olympic scandals.
There is important moral guidance in the writings of the great Rav Kook. He urged physical exercise and health as ingredients of the rebuilding of the Jewish people, and advocated physical education as part of the yeshivah curriculum. He believed that “the exercises practised by the youth of Israel in Eretz Yisrael” would “strengthen their bodies to make themselves courageous sons of their nation”. He thought that “when Jewish children will be strong, sound and healthy, the air of the world will become holy and pure”.
Rav Kook, however, could not have approved the way sports now have overtones of corruption, cut-throat rivalry and obsessive gambling on results, nor sports that become an end in themselves, or spectator sports that do nothing for the personal fitness of the barrackers. From the moral point of view, Rav Kook, the great idealist, would sadly conclude that sporting activities like the Olympics, as they have developed, miserably fail to make “the air of the world… holy and pure” or to promote international harmony.
Perhaps carrying the Olympic torch is more wholesome than the Olympics themselves.