Watch the real Olympic relay – on eBay

Image of Robert Shrimsley

Talk about getting into the spirit of the Olympics: within hours of the London 2012 flame being lit, eBay was filling up with people offering to sell the torches they are due to carry over the next few weeks. Apparently, each of the 8,000 people who will bear the flame has their own torch and can purchase it after the event for about £200.

Price tags of several thousand pounds are already being sought and seemingly offered. It’s the all-new torch relay, spelled out in the official instructions for torch-bearers: 1) wait, with torch aloft, at designated spot; 2) express pride and delight at being selected for this honour; 3) receive flame and jog with it for a mile accompanied by police bodyguards and vehicles bearing the sponsors’ logos; 4) pass flame to next torch-bearer; 5) shake off bodyguards, dash home with extinguished torch and stick the damn thing on eBay; 6) with the proceeds, jet off to Caribbean before Games begin to avoid the crush.

It’s a tough call. On the one hand, it’s a fairly special souvenir with high-end fuel technology that could come in terribly handy lighting barbecues. On the other, if some sucker is prepared to offer five- or even six-figure sums for it then you’d be a fool not to pocket the money and continue to make do with the Swan Vestas.

The International Olympic Committee is relaxed about this – and so it should be, for commercialism runs through the marrow of the Games. One only has to watch TV to see that it’s not the winning, it’s the taking commercial partnerships – Procter & Gamble: sponsoring mums for decades; Coca-Cola: rotting teeth since 1886. Or Lloyds TSB, which, like other sponsors, has bought the right to brand a certain number of days of the torch rally. You’ll be able to see the vintage Lloyds coach as the flame passes through the delightful villages of Folly Gate, Sticklepath, Blunder, Hubris and Bailout.

Who knew, for example, that Michael Phelps, the US swimmer who took eight gold medals in Beijing, needs only two things before a big race: his music and the confidence that comes from washing his hair with Head & Shoulders. Oh yeah, Phelps would be nowhere without his cool menthol, frequent-use shampoo. Actually it explains a lot, not least that my own failure as a swimmer is down to the fact that we were a Vosene family. But now the others know “flakemeister” Phelps’s secret, he may face some stiff competition, especially in the 500m rinse and condition. But he can still be confident in the sponsored freestyle, in which swimmers must swim 10 lengths and then sculpt their hair into an exciting new look.

I’ve no objection to the sponsorship. The money is there for the taking and those five-star hotel suites and private jets for the Olympic bigwigs don’t grow on trees. What grates is the attempt to pretend that the whole thing is still true to its original Olympian ideals – hence the absurd classical flummery around the torch-lighting in “ancient Olympia”, where the flame is lit in the Grove of Wherever on the Mount of Whatever and handed around by a load of toga-swathed extras from the cast of I, Claudius, or maybe National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Doubtless some are moved by the pantomime. Back home, the PTA is already discussing adopting the idea for the school sports day. In advance of the event, children would run the length of the borough bearing a small Pifco torch, each powered by the same pair of batteries purchased from the W.H. Smith on the High Road by teachers wrapped in a bedsheet.

No, the commercialism is fine. But surely we should have the courage of our convictions, go the whole hog and reflect the times we are living in. Instead of togas, torches and Greek maidens, runners should carry a flaming credit card, lit in Frankfurt by a German banker – in lederhosen if you are into the costume shtick. Then again, perhaps we could save that idea for Eurozone summits.

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