Not to be a downer, but it is a bit discouraging to remember that the very cool tradition of transporting the Olympic flame from its birthplace – where Hestia’s temple used to be in Olympia – to the Olympic city was started by the Nazis. Yes. The first Olympic torch relay happened in 1936 under the watchful eye of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. That is unfortunate.
It is also not really a topic of discussion as people get their selfies with the Olympic cauldron here on Olympic Boulevard in downtown Rio.
And they do get their selfies. It’s easy to forget just how much people want to connect to the Olympics, how much they want to feel a part of the Games. You probably know that the cauldron here in Rio is different for a couple of reasons. One, it’s much, much smaller than cauldrons of recent Olympics. It looks roughly the size of a witch’s cauldron, the sort that a witch might use to create a brew with eye of newt and dragon scales.
The Rio people say that the small cauldron was by design – they wanted the flame to represent the need for low emissions and to reduce global warming. This is a nice gesture and way better than the image of a Rio Olympics official running around a few minutes before the Opening Ceremony ended shouting, “Does anyone have a pot?”
The second thing that’s different is that they have decided to put this flame away from the rest of the Olympics. You won’t just run into it following around the sports. It’s 45 minutes (or seven hours, depending on traffic and what lanes happen to be open) away from Olympic Park, and it’s at least a half hour away from Copacabana.
But there is something wonderful about the scene here. As I mentioned, it’s easy to forget how much people want to just get close to the Games. Here in downtown Brazil, thousands of people mill around, a dozen languages are spoken, people wearing shirt representing Poland, China, Panama, Canada and Austria mill together near a vendor who is selling chocolate ice cream bars for the bargain basement price of whatever you look like you might pay.*
*In a brief exchange, our ice cream bars – I was there with the Associated Press’ Jim Litke – when from the six Brazilian reals (about two bucks) to 10 reals (a little more than three bucks) based entirely on his reading of our faces.
Near the torch, there is a tiny little medal stand that is there for some promotion. I mean it’s tiny – the gold medal step is maybe 12 inches off the ground. People LINE UP to have their photo taken there. There were probably 50 people in line for that photo op.
Kids climb and play on the letters that spell out “#CidaDeOlympica” – Hashtag, The Olympic City. Hundreds and hundreds of people gather around giant video screens and watch … judo.
Anything that feels sort of connected to the Olympics has all these people enthralled. The cauldron is just a few hundred yards away from the extraordinary Museo do Amanha – the Museum of Tomorrow. It’s one of the most beautiful and fascinating buildings you will ever see. People are much more interested in the little cauldron fire.