x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Olympic spirit has a price, shipping not included

What does it tell us that people who carry an Olympic torch promptly sell it on eBay?

Whether it's the sight of the Olympic torch that's the cause, or just the glorious weather currently prevailing, the UK is, finally, getting excited about the games.

Ever since its arrival early last week, the iconic flame has been making its slow yet stately way through towns and villages across the UK, to crowds of adoring onlookers. During the course of its route, it will come within 10 miles of 95 per cent of the population, arriving in the capital just in time for the opening on July 27.

The flame itself is being ferried by 8,000 specially chosen relay runners, ranging from schoolchildren right up to 91 year-old Arthur Gilbert, who has been awarded his moment in the spotlight as a reward for nearly four decades of outstanding charity work.

For those who have been awarded their 500 metres of fame, one can only imagine the sense of pride they must experience. Surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, their brief segment of the journey is garlanded by cheering crowds, front-page coverage in their local paper and even, if they're lucky, a brief appearance on national television.

More wonderful still, they get to keep their own individual torch after the flame has been passed to the next participant, if they choose to pay for it. Many have. It is an enduring symbol of their special day, and a tangible keepsake of the Olympic ideal that one day they will be able to show to their grandchildren.

That, of course, is how we'd all like to imagine things to be. But in 21st century Britain, the destination of many of the torches is proving more prosaic. Far from being cosseted as a priceless memento, used torches are springing up on online auction sites within minutes of use.

Prices for what one advertiser described as "a souvenir to collect and treasure" range from $6,000 (Dh22,020) right up to one example with a reserve price of $100,000 (the extent of the owner's greed, or stupidity, is surely betrayed by the announcement that postage and packing are a further $30).

The news that such totemic items are being flogged for cash has provoked criticism in the media, especially from those who believe the Olympian ideal should not be available to the highest bidder in this way.

In fairness, not all the items are being bartered for personal gain. For some participants, their decision to resell their keepsake is driven by a desire to generate revenue for local charities or good causes. But there are many more who, it seems, are just looking to make a quick buck.

Yet on closer inspection the morality of the issue is not so black and white. Many of those defending their decision to part with their torches point out that, as they had to fork out $750 for them in the first place, the item is surely theirs to do with as they wish. Others cite family illness or financial embarrassment as the mainspring of their decision.

In any case, like the torches themselves, perhaps we shouldn't get too overheated. With eBay, anything and everything can be turned into cash nowadays merely at the click of a mouse: not only Olympic memorabilia but military medals, family heirlooms - anything, in fact, that has a monetary value. Never mind discarded torches, items that have appeared on eBay include a piece of chewing gum recently munched by singer Britney Spears, a sample of Michael Jackson's underwear and a corn flake shaped like Illinois (the fact that this last item attracted bids over $100,000 surely proves the old dictum that "nobody ever went broke by underestimating public taste").

Indeed, upon checking it out, I notice that even my own autograph is currently retailing on eBay for $1.99. There are currently no bidders. Perhaps I'll place one myself. But just how hard-nosed an industry online auctioning has now become is illustrated by a story I heard recently concerning Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart, who was playing Shakespeare's Macbeth onstage in London.

Stewart had apparently endured so many instances of fans requesting autographs, only to flog items on eBay at vastly inflated prices, that he had embargoed signing his name on anything associated with the series in an effort to stem the trade.

One Saturday evening he was informed that a young child had been waiting patiently outside the stage door ever since the afternoon matinée, clutching a picture of the actor in the hope of getting a signature. With night fast approaching, the child remained.

Eventually Stewart broke his own rule and popped upstairs to gratify the child's dearest wish, safe in the knowledge that this was one instance when he could be confident his scrawl wouldn't be turned to financial account. By the end of the evening performance it was already on sale on eBay for $100.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London