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The story of the Olympic torch

All you need to know about the history and significance of the Olympic torch.

Olympic Torch
The Olympic Torch relay before the start of the 2016 Games

The Origins

The origin of the Olympic torch lies in the sanctuary of Olympia in ancient Greece where the first Olympic Games were held. Fire, to the ancient Greeks, was believed to be stolen from Zeus and gifted to humankind by Prometheus.  

To commemorate the incident, a sacred fire was lit which would burn throughout the duration of the ancient Games in Olympia. Skaphia, or parabolic mirrors as we call them now, were used to focus the sun’s rays on a recipient to ignite a flame which would perpetually burn until the Games ended.

The ancient Greeks considered fire to be a divine element and kept the fires burning in front of the temples. The modern Olympic flame is lit in front of the altars of Zeus and Hera in Olympia and acts as a link to the modern Olympics to that of ancient Greece.

Use of the Olympic torch in the Modern Games

In the context of the modern Games, the Olympic flame represents the positive values that Man has always associated with fire. A few months before the commencement of the Olympics, a ceremony is organised at the site of the ancient Olympics. Actresses, playing the part of priestesses, light the flame in front of the altar of Hera where the same method of lighting with the suns ray’s using parabolic mirrors is used. This is the only way to light the flame and is a sign of the purity of the flame and the Games it is associated with.

The flame is lit several months before the event so that it can pass through many destinations before it arrives in the host venue on time.

The tradition of using the sacred flame was reintroduced in the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. But the practice of the torch relay did not occur until 1936 at the Berlin Games. Carl Diem proposed the idea of a relay of the Olympic torch from Greece to the host venue. The event was inspired by the ancient practice of torch races in Classical Greece held in the honour of certain Gods.

The flame, which was lit in Olympia was transported over 3187 kilometres by 3331 runners who spent twelve days to pass the torch through seven countries to reach Berlin ahead of the commencement of the Games.

The first torchbearer on that maiden Relay was the Greek Konstantinos Kondylis and the last was Germany’s Fritz Schilgen.

The conceptualization of the relay was believed to be propagating Nazi agenda and was met with minor protests in  Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia on its way to Berlin. In spite of that, the Relay has been a constant at the Summer Games ever since.

The relay was televised for the first time in 1960 for the Rome Olympics. It was a time when the flame met the two greatest Classical Civilisations, commencing in Greece and concluding in Rome.

Modes of transport

Traditionally, the Olympic Torch was carried from one place to another on foot. However, modes of transport have become highly diversified through the years as the Games gained popularity throughout the world.

Water: The flame was carried by boat in 1948 and 2012 where it crossed the English channel. In 2008, rowers in Canberra carried the torch. For the first time, the flame was carried under water at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia for the Sydney Olympics in 2008.

Air: The torch was first transported by aeroplane in 1952 when the fire travelled to Helsinki.

Space: The Olympic Torch was carried into outer space by astronauts before the 1996 Atlanta and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Other modes: In 1976, the flame was transmitted from Athens to Ottawa via a radio signal which was used to trigger a Laser beam to produce the flame.

Other unique modes of transport of the flame include horseback (Melbourne/Stockholm 1956) and camel (Sydney 2000).

The Torch-Bearers

Before the 1970s Munich, only male athletes carried the torch. It was only at the 1972 Munich Games that women and people with disabilities carried the torches. It was also the inception of the ‘ordinary’ torch-bearers, who were amongst the inhabitants of the place where the relay passed.

The first and last torch-bearers are often famous members of the sporting community. The likes of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and footballer Michel Platini are among the famous sportspersons to have lit the cauldron at the Olympic venue.

Sometimes, other people of social significance have been given the opportunity to light the cauldron, and be the final torch-bearer. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, runner Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in 1945 on the day the atom bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, got the privilege to light the cauldron marking the commencement of the Games.

Design and Chemistry

The design of the torches, which changes for every Olympic games, are sometimes based on a classical conception, and at other times, representing the local flavour of the host city. The torch for the Turin Olympics was criticised as being too heavy for the runners.

The designs, as well as the chemistry of the torches, have changed through the years. Early torches often used solid and liquid fuels, including olive oil, while the latest ones use liquefied gas for lighting the flame.

The torch has also been carried by swimmers just above and under water in the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games and the 2000 Sydney Games respectively.

The Rio Olympic Torch

The sacred flame for the Rio Olympics was lit on 21 April earlier this year in Southern Greece. Actress Katerina Lehou who lit the flame using the traditional method of using the sun’s rays offered a mock prayer to Apollo before lighting.

She then passed the flame to Greek world gymnastics champion Eleftherios Petrounias who was the first to carry the torch for this year’s Olympics which will pass on to numerous runners concluding at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 5 August.

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