The Peace Relay: A Proposal

The Olympic torch relay was begun at the 1936 Olympic Games as a means for the Nazi party to showcase the strength of the German fatherland and gain support for the regime. Since that time it has been, like the Olympics themselves, a more or less political exercise thinly disguised as an act of international solidarity. This politicization was taken to new levels this year as the Beijing Olympic Committee staged their torch relay on an unprecedented scale, traversing 137,000 km and six continents over 129 days and adding to the sponsorship of the relay itself by Coca-Cola a sponsorship of the torch proper by Chinese computer corporation Lenovo.

As Virilio notes: "[S]overeignty no longer resides in the territory itself, but in the control of the territory" (Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader, p. 132). And furthermore: "Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of a territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost is a matter of movement and circulation" (p. 128). Hence, when the torch passes through Tibet (Autonomous Region) on its way to the summit of Mount Everest, we are witnessing a unique moment of neocolonialism in the name of nation-state (China), transnational corporation (Lenovo) and supranational organization (IOC) — in other words, in the name of sporting Empire.

With this in mind, I would like to introduce a proposal for a different type of relay, free from the overt politics of Empire (though not free of politics), which I will refer to as the Peace Relay.


A certain number of relay batons (let's say 2,010 to stand against the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver) are given to selected runners to begin a road race. These are not ordinary batons, however, nor is this a traditional road race.

Traditional Road Race FormatFig.1. Linear vectors of force in a traditional road race format.

In a traditional road race, there is a start, finish, and a fairly linear trajectory that connects the two and channels vectors of force in a forward direction — it is a relatively striated space of sporting activity (see Fig.1). The starting gun begins competitive activity at a specific point, which then finds its terminus at some point in the future (this may in fact be a loop coming back around to the starting point). As described previously on sportsBabel, this structure spatially distinguishes between participants and spectators, which encloses the space and further feeds the former forward towards the goal orientation of reaching the finish line.

The Peace Relay takes this sporting structure as its conceptual foundation and subverts it in several ways. First, the relay has no finish line, which removes the goal orientation in traditional races described earlier. Because there is no finish line and no goal orientation, the requirement for a linear, mono-directional vector of force is eliminated as well. Where does one run when there is no finish line? Anywhere.

Contagion model of peace relayFig.2. Nonlinear vectors of contagion in the peace relay format.

So we have 2,010 runners, each with a baton and the freedom to move in any direction, which forms the basis of the Peace Relay as a potential for meme contagion. The batons are not simple track and field batons, but rather specially designed symbols to represent peace through athletics. When the run begins, each runner scatters in different directions with their own baton (see Fig.2). Each person might hang on to their own baton for a few days, displacing it from the location where it was initially received, but the understanding is that eventually every runner will pass their baton on to another runner. This person will be told how the relay works, be offered the choice of participation, and then will recite some version of the following before receiving the baton:

"I pledge to move the goal of peace forward in the world."

The sound of the starting gun symbolizes the violence that exists in the world, but also signifies the beginning of the Peace Relay and its embodied efforts to spread an idea. The absence of a finish line suggests that peace is ever elusive, endlessly deferred, continuously struggled towards. The baton is the vector of contagion that spreads the idea of peace from one runner to the next. And the open race course ruptures the barriers that keep us separated from one another, allowing the contagion to flow out into open smooth space. "Circulating is the first ethical act of a counterimperial ontology" (Hardt and Negri).

(Thanks are due to Elaine Ho, Barb Fornssler and Tom Kalin for their invaluable feedback.)


2 responses to The Peace Relay: A Proposal

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  1. e says:

    You know already that i am very much into this idea! Surprised that you publish it already, but hopefully the meme starts spreading in the "right" directions…

    My thoughts upon reading this are minor, but promised feedforward, so…

    1) 2010 runners to represent the year 2010, anno domini? hmm… I know Beijing has really sucked up the number eight for all it's worth and not, but to say 2010 runners, while a highly recognisable number, seems, now thinking again, a bit arbitrary. Going back to your tying in of the torch relay to its Nazi origins, it seems more interesting, for example, to count the years since the torch relay began, as a way of using this particular relay to "feedback-forward" to what these underlying striated meanings the torch relay carries. Does 74 sound too few to make an interesting impact? Let's think more about this one…

    2) Required recitations sound terrible, I'm sorry! Nightmares of 11th grade English class and trying to memorize the beginning of The Canterbury Tales! I think that anybody with the willingness to participate in this relay have this message of peace and its interesting counter-empire thinking actually embodied in them, and in the very act of what they are doing, so the oral bit is not even necessary! At most, you could have it inscribed on the baton itself, but even that is questionable… Or perhaps that in combination with the "message in a baton" idea? That there is an inscribed text within this object, but also the opportunity for each participant, if he/she so chooses, to leave his or her fingerprint/voice to the all the others who may receive the baton in the future. That voice would be voluntary, and a creative one, and seems to speak much more closely to the smoothing of the relay in the first place… What do you think?

    Looking forward to going into this more with you next month–are we on? Adding oil now…!

  2. sportsbabel says:

    What's an idle mind to do in Budapest? Publish!

    You've hit upon two of my main concerns with the original idea, though perhaps not quite in the same way…, feedingbackforward:

    1. 2010 is absolutely arbitrary as a number, but was choosing this number "arbitrarily" as a means to perhaps gain funding if it can be juxtaposed against the Vancouver Olympics. I like the critique of the Nazi origins, but 74 will definitely be too few. So that critique has to be embedded in another way, perhaps even in the invitation to participate (a whole other question that we haven't tackled yet). As a matter of fact, I am worried that 2010 is too few in the grand scheme of things … seems like a lot in an enclosed area, but dreadfully minor perhaps in terms of contagion vectors?

    2. Yes, I also felt that the required recitation was a little corny, and not consonant with the "smoothing of the relay" as you eloquently described it. That said, I felt like there ought to be some element of ritual to the passage between bodies … maybe we can think of something better? Also, I am becoming more cognizant of the question of language as it pertains to inscribing text on the baton — re: questions of accessibility that you have raised elsewhere. Maybe a website url is the only inscribed text on the baton, but the website becomes a place where the message can be communicated in multiple languages?

    Yes, we are on (under a month!) … as you are well aware.