A Brief History of the Olympic Flame

As the thirty-second Olympiad kicks off in Tokyo today, after a year’s delay, we look back at the history of the Olympic flame – an inspiring icon of the games which nods to Ancient Greece

It’s an instantly recognisable symbol of the Olympics – second only to the famous interlinking rings – and one that inextricably binds the modern games to its ancient predecessor.  

Lit in Olympia, Greece, several months before the Olympiad begins, the Olympic torch is relayed from one torchbearer to the next until it reaches the host city’s Olympic stadium. Kicking off events, it’s used to ignite the Olympic cauldron, which blazes until the closing ceremony. 

And while the tradition of lighting an Olympic flame has endured for almost a century, it nods to a far older sporting feat: the ancient games of Olympia, where fire played a sacred role.  

Divine origins 

Commonly thought to have started in 776BC, the Ancient Olympics were religious and sporting events held every four years at Olympia’s sanctuary of Zeus. Several city-states and kingdoms in Ancient Greece participated in combat sports such as wrestling, as well as running and equestrian events. According to legend, the games were a time when a truce was declared between participating states – the reason the Olympics today symbolises worldwide peace.

The religious side of the games involved ritual sacrifices to Zeus and Pelops, a mythical king of Olympia famed for his chariot racing. The Olympics declined as Rome gained power in Greece, likely ending around 393AD, when Emperor Theodosius I put an end to pagan cults. 

Fire was the backdrop to the games: in Ancient Greece, it was considered sacred – thought to have been stolen from the gods by Prometheus and given to man, thus bestowing wisdom upon them. A fire burned perpetually on the altar of the sanctuary of Hestia, goddess of the hearth or fireplace (later known to the Romans as Vesta), as well as outside other major temples.

For the duration of the games, inside the border of Olympia, additional fires were lit at Zeus’ temple and outside that of his wife Hera. The flames’ purity was ensured by harnessing the sun’s rays to ignite them with the aid of a primitive parabolic mirror. 

The modern Olympic flame is ignited at the same site where Hestia’s temple once stood. Eleven women (actresses) sporting the flowing robes of the Vestal Virgins – Hestia’s priestesses, who guarded her sacred eternal flame – perform a celebration around her altar before the chief priestess hands the flame to the first Olympic torch runner. 

Reigniting the flame 

While the Olympic Games in their modern incarnation began in 1896, after a drive by historian Pierre de Coubertin, it wasn’t until 1928 that the flame made its first appearance – architect Jan Wils incorporating a fire on a tower overlooking the Amsterdam Olympic stadium. Aptly, the flame was lit by an employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam.

Fast-forward to 1936, and the idea of the Olympic torch relay was born. Such a ritual had never existed within the context of the games in classical times, though the ancient Greeks did have a relay race (‘lampadedromia’) which involved runners passing a torch between them.  

For Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, a torch ceremony represented a powerful opening act for the Berlin games – and superb propaganda for Nazi Germany, the host of that year’s event. Additionally, it forged a link between the Nazis and ancient Greeks, whom Hitler admired. Later, the idea of the Olympic flame was attributed to Carl Diem, the event’s chief organiser, due to an understandable reluctance to see Goebbels as the father of the flame.

Berlin 1936 also marked the games’ return to Olympia, where the flame was lit for the first time in the modern era. Across a period of twelve days, over three thousand runners transported it to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where it was used to light the cauldron during the opening ceremony.

The same year a flame graced the Winter Olympics for the first time – although it was not lit at Olympia; by 1964, however, the latter had become the sole venue for the lighting of the flame.

Passing the torch 

More than the Olympic flame itself, the torch relay embodies the Olympics’ message of peace. For the time of the games, people across the world are encouraged to put down their weapons and celebrate human achievement. This focus is reflected in the route of the relay itself, which kicks off the moment the high priestess in Olympia hands the flame to the first runner in the torch relay and is designed to symbolise human achievement.

While usually carried on foot, the flame has been transported by bicycle, car, train, horse and camel. In 2000 it was taken underwater around the Great Barrier Reef, and in 2008 it boarded a dragon boat in Hong Kong. The flame first took to the skies in 1952, en route to Helsinki; in 1976, spectacularly, it was transformed into a radio signal and transmitted by satellite to Canada, where the signal was used to trigger a laser-beam to relight the flame. The torch – rather than the flame itself – has accompanied astronauts into space several times. 

Expanding the flame’s message, it began to embark upon more global journeys around the millennium: 2004’s route was a seventy-eight-day journey taking in Africa and South America for the first time, as well as visiting all previous Olympic sites before heading to host city Athens.

Sadly, since 2008, when there were protests leading up to the Beijing games, relays are now limited to the host country after the first leg in Greece. 

It’s not uncommon for the flame to be extinguished on its journey whether by accident or design. For this reason, multiple copies of the flame accompany the relay or are maintained at backup locations. When a torch is extinguished, it is relit from one of these, maintaining the link to Olympia – though in practice, Olympic officials have turned to cigarette lighters at times.   

Let the games begin

The flame’s entrance into the Olympic stadium is the symbolic opening of the games – with the final torchbearer lapping the stadium before using the flame to light the Olympic cauldron, which is often set atop a sweeping staircase. A release of doves evokes the event’s pacific aim – and nods to the ancient games, when it’s believed homing pigeons were used to let villagers know when their hometown athlete had won.

Much like the Olympic torch, the cauldron’s design is a subject of speculation, fanfare – and occasionally ridicule. The way in which it is lit has given rise to some of the games’ most spectacular effects: at Barcelona 1992, most famously, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo ignited it by shooting a burning arrow in the air, igniting gas rising from the cauldron. For the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Aboriginal Australian runner Cathy Freeman walked across a circular pool of water and ignited the cauldron through it, surrounding herself with a ring of fire (give or take the odd technical glitch, which caused the flame to be suspended in mid-air).

The final torchbearer is a citizen of the host country – an honour has long fallen to athletes, beginning with nine-time Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, at Helskini 1952, and continuing via Muhammed Ali (1996) to Freeman and beyond. At other times they have symbolised Olympic ideals: Japanese runner Yoshinori Sakai was born in Hiroshima on the day it was destroyed by the atomic bomb. His appearance at the 1964 Tokyo games symbolised Japan’s rebirth. 

Keeping the fire burning 

Now, fifty-six years later, the Olympic flame has returned to Japan in time for the Tokyo games. Much as the 1964 event symbolised regeneration after the Second World War, this time it is being used to highlight reconstruction following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima.

The torch was lit in Greece back on 12 March 2020 and features a cherry blossom design. After a week-long relay through Greece, it was handed to Tokyo organisers – only to be delayed for a year due to the ongoing pandemic. Some 121 days ago, it finally began its journey through Japan, beginning in Fukushima. 

Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto has spoken of the Olympic flame as a ray of light at the end of the tunnel: part of a torchy-relay concept that’s called ‘Hope Lights Our Way’. ‘This little flame never lost hope and it waited for this day like a cherry blossom bud just about to bloom,’ she told journalists at the games’ launch ceremony. 

In other words, a flame worthy of the ancient Olympic ideals, which are still burning bright. 

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