Peace, Unity and Friendship: Reflections on the Torch Relay
It’s been a week now and the Olympic Torch Relay has been in the South of England and now finds itself in Wales. I wrote a blog post for the project I’m leading, #citizenrelay, last week about television coverage of the first day and here I’d like to reflect on some of the isuses that have arisen in the days since that post and their relationship with the values associated with the Torch Relay.
The Torch Relay is said to represent peace, unity and friendship. How have these values been expressed this week in the context of the Torch Relay? It’s certainly been peaceful in the sense that there’s been little evidence of expressed resistance, violence or obvious antagonism as the flame has passed from Torchbearer to Torchbearer and community to community. Perhaps the peaceful scenes are to be expected as LOCOG has carefully staged the Torch Relay as a sort of rolling carnival across the UK, encouraging villages, towns and cities to outdo each other as the (lengthy) cavaldade passes through. On Wednesday, I watched the BBC Torch Relay highlights programme in Bristol and was impressed with the numbers of people attending the evening celebration but also disappointed at the uncritical coverage of the Olympics. Apparently the nation was being united each day as the Torch Relay passed through and it was the most inclusive event the country had seen for some time. Unity was the name of the game and the Torch was said to be serving its purpose to encourage peace, unity and friendship.
However, although the Torch has undoubtedly been a ‘success’ thus far, in terms of the number of flag waving spectators and positive media coverage for Olympic organisers, we can’t forget that the event is an expression of the interests of sanctioning bodies (IOC and LOCOG) and that all ‘official’ participants are expected to accept all branding conditions, commercialization interests and security demand imposed upon them. It is here where the peace, unity and friendship begins to unravel, illustrated this week in a few small, but significant, encounters.
The Torch Relay began in Cornwall and this week we saw an expresion of Cornish national identity (see Gordon Hunt’s interview for more background) being curtailed by Olympic organisers in Saltash. Not perhaps that much of a big deal for those outside of the region, but the flag grab nonetheless provided an illustration of the concern of Olympic organisers to avoid disunity, division and alternative narratives taking over their event. Yet, the 2012 Olympic Games has been sold to the nations and regions of the UK on the baiss that it would be there Games too, benefitting all. The UK, after all, has within it a number of devolved governments and strong associations with flags and other national symbols. In Scotland, there has already been an outcry at the Saltire flag being banned from Hampden Park (The National Football Stadium) during the Olympics Games. When the Torch Relay arrives in Scotland on the evening of the 7th June, we can surely expect to see scores of Saltire flags flying to welcome the Olympics onto Scottish soil – will these be confiscated in the name of national unity?
Finally, the branding police have also been busy during the first few days of the Torch Relay, shutting down the Twitter account of Space Hijackers, a protest group which parodies the commercial imperatives of LOCOG. Even in the small village of Tomintoul in the North East of Scotland, villagers have been warned by their local authority that wearing an unofficial sponsors logo as the Torch Relay passes through will lead to sanctions including the wearing of a white t-shirt to hide the offending garment. Here more about this from a local resident. Organisers retort that the Olympics would not be in the UK without the investment made by corporate sponsors and other forms of private capital but the Torch Relay is promoted as being about friendship – yet watching coverage of the cavalcade travelling through you will see a host of vehicles participating in what I’ve termed the ‘corporate relay’. Throbbing music, free samples and a captive audience at the evening celebrations allow corporate sponsors privileged access to the public realm (and public spaces) to sell their wares under the banner of so-called universal values of peace, unity and friendship.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this jamboree develops as it encounters parts of the UK with their own story to tell.