Sovereignty and the Eternal Flame

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin catalyzed the modern reintroduction of the Olympic Games in 1896, he could scarcely have imagined what his project would resemble a little over a century later: laboratory proving ground for remarkable advances in the biophysical sciences; highly disciplined, surveillant, and militarized sporting landscape; and strong aggregator of global capital — all facilitated by the spectacle of global media and communications.

Given this spectacular epoxy, we might understand contemporary Olympism as a complex edifice of signification: the Olympic rings logo is one of the most recognized icons on the planet; the flags of nation-states multiply on uniforms, podiums and television screens; while the symbiotic play of measurement and metallurgy yields signs of gold, silver and bronze hue.

Essential to the character of the Olympic Games in this play of signification is the cadence of the Olympiad, the quadrennial that restores a rhythmic interval to an industrial world increasingly detached from nature and its seasonal rhythms. The Olympiad provides an historical lineage that encompasses the whole of the ancient and modern Games and is the source of the Olympic Movement's strength, the common idea that unites the entire genealogy of the Games and provides gravitas to all of the sub-units of time contained within and stitched together into an invisible architectural form — milliseconds that separate athletes into their various performance rankings; frozen moments that temporarily sediment the Olympic traveling carnival in a particular city; erasure of space over time through raw accelerating speed. Though it is speed (duration-as-reduction) that gives the Olympics its appeal as spectacle, it is the temporality of the Olympiad (duration-as-continuity) that provides its appeal as ideology.

While the Olympics are a spatially nomadic athletic carnival that breezes into town only to leave again shortly thereafter, they temporally persist even after any particular event's flame has been extinguished. Thus, there is one Olympic signifier that stands unique from the rest, and that is the Olympic Torch. In a global sporting event marked by citius, altius, fortius — the modern quest for speed in all facets of athletic endeavour — the torch is temporally distinct as a signifier of continuity, simulacrum of an eternal flame that reaches right back to Antiquity as if Prometheus himself delivered us a gesture of hope in the decorative wrap of Progress.

The Olympic host nation captures many of the signifiers mentioned earlier within its sovereign boundaries, particularly within the temporary carceral spaces of the Athletes' Village and the sporting competition sites. As Virilio (2004) notes, however, "sovereignty no longer resides in the territory itself, but in the control of the territory" (p. 132). If boundaries cease to be the determining factor, then how does one effect control? "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).

Beijing 2008 Torch

The Olympic Torch is unique again in that it offers the potential to transgress these sovereign boundaries — under a sign leased from the IOC, the host nation is able to effect a temporary colonization beyond its borders via the Olympic Torch Run. The "One World, One Dream" 2008 Olympics in Beijing recently witnessed the grandest torch run of all time, 85,000 miles of passage over 130 days and across five continents, including a politically-charged trip through Tibet to the rarefied air at the greatest altius of them all, the summit of Mount Everest. Chinese sporting legend Li Ning completed the trip with his dramatic, gravity-defying run around the upper walls of the National Stadium to light the Olympic flame.

While we should be cognizant of the material aspects of the journey and its circulating forces, we must also unpack the layers of signification contained therein. Lenovo Group Ltd., a Beijing 2008 TOP sponsor, was coincidentally chosen as the winning torch designer from among more than 300 competing designs. Notably, it was also the company that acquired the personal computer division of American computer giant IBM in 2005 for $1.75 billion

To remix Grant Farred, the Olympic Torch represents the spectral presence of Chinese capital within America. It is, precisely because of a complicated semiological heritage, a most profound threat to American empire. Duration-as-continuity merge with the flows and disconnects of global capital to create new messages that coexist with those imagined to have existed for thousands of years.


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