The Olympic Torch became the main symbol of the Olympic Games. It originated in ancient Greece where it is believed that the flame kept burning throughout the celebration of the Olympic Games. The classic flame commemorates the legend of Prometheus stealing fire from the Greek god Zeus. The Flame was later reintroduced in Amsterdam at the 1928 Olympics and has been a symbol of the modern Olympic Games ever since.
Despite the long history of the Olympic Games and the Olympic Flame, the torch relay is a modern establishment. Shockingly this tradition originated in Germany during the controversial 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler was convinced of the connection between ancient Greece and modern Nazi regime and used the relay in his propaganda as an expression of Aryan superiority.
The Olympic Torch is lit several months before the opening ceremony in Greek Olympia, the original site of the Olympic Games. The ceremony is performed by eleven women, representing ancient priestesses, at the site of the Temple of Hera. The torch is ignited by the Sun’s rays concentrated by a parabolic mirror. It is then placed in an urn and transported to the ancient stadium where the first carrier takes over.
There have been many unusual ways in which the torch has been carried. Here are some examples of the remarkable means of transportation:
1948 – The flame transported by boat to cross the English Channel,
2008 – Carried by dragon boats in Hong Kong
1952 – Transported by an airplane to Helsinki
1956 – All carriers travelled on horseback
1976 the flame was transformed into a radio signal which was then transmitted from Athens to Canada and used to trigger laser beam to re-light the flame
2000 – The flame carried by divers near the Great Barrier Reef.
Other extraordinary means of transport included: carried by rowers in Canaberrs, by Native American canoe, a camel and Concorde.
In 2004 the first Global torch relay, which lasted 78 days and covered distance of over 78,000 km, was undertaken. 11,300 runners visited all previous Olympic cities as well as Africa and South America before returning to Athens.
The last bearer of the torch lights the flame at the central Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony, which continues to burn throughout the Olympic Games. It is put out at the closing ceremony.
The last runner is usually a celebrity or an ordinary, not announced till the last minute. It may be however an ordinary person that represents Olympic ideals.
The most amazing ignition of the cauldron took place in Barcelona in 1992 when Antonio Rebollo lit the gas rising from cauldron by shooting a burning arrow.
In Beijing in 2008 Li Ning lit the flame by ‘running on air’ around the stadium supported by wires.
In 1964 Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima the day the nuclear weapon destroyed the city, opened the Tokyo Games. It constituted a symbol of the rebirth of Japan after the Second World War.
In 1976 at the Montreal Olympics two youngsters: one from French-speaking and one from English-speaking part of the country lit the cauldron symbolising of the unity of Canada.
For the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Cathy Freeman walked across a circular pool of water and lit the flame through the water, surrounding herself within a ring of fire. The final ignition however was delayed by a technical fault. Due to the computer error the Olympic flame was suspended ‘mid-air’ for several minutes, rather than rising up a water-covered ramp to the top of the stadium. The mistake was quickly discovered and corrected letting the cauldron continue up the ramp.
Some torch relays have been met with protests, mainly because of their origins in Nazi regime. Unsurprisingly there have been uprisings in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia against the first run however the disruptions were shortly suppressed by the local security forces.
In 1956 a student Barry Larkin protested against the Melbourne Games by carrying a fake flame and passing it to the Mayor of Sydney. The torch was made of a pair of underwear in a plum pudding can set on fire. He did manage to trick the audience and escape unnoticed.
Also there were many critics of the Olympics being held in China that attempted to disrupt the relay. The human rights supporters succeeded in the end by putting out the flame in Paris.
The route for this year’s Olympics had already been revealed.
For those interested, here it is: torch relay street-by-street routes (Source: BBC)