Brilliant idea fires up the Olympics


The 1936 Berlin Olympics attained notoriety as German chancellor Adolf Hitler tried to hold up the Games as a symbol of Aryan supremacy.

The four-gold performance of Jesse Owens came as a perfect riposte to the Fuhrer’s efforts to mix politics with sports. But the 11th edition of the Games wasn’t all about Nazi propaganda as Berlin also bequeathed the Olympic movement a
powerful idea.

The Olympic cauldron was first lit for the 1928 Games but the practice of lighting a flame at Olympia in Greece and carrying it to the main stadium of the Games came into force eight years later. It was the brilliant idea of Carl Diem, secretary general of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Diem was in charge of organising the 1916 Games at Berlin but World War I forced the cancellation of the sixth edition. The administrator, who had nothing to do with the Nazis, made his mark 20 years later.

Fire is sacred in many cultures. In ancient Greece too, fire was a symbol of purity. Perpetual fires burned in Greek temples, even though there was no torch relay at the Olympics in antiquity because the Games were held at a stone’s throw away from Olympia.

Diem’s brainwave was a masterstroke because it linked the ancient Olympics to its modern incarnation. There was continuity even as the Olympic caravan moved across the globe unlike the Greece-only ancient Games.

The modern Olympics is not only about sporting contests. It also has elaborate ceremonies, traditions and protocols. If competitions on the field of play are all about spontaneity, igniting a flame at Olympia and carrying it to the main stadium to light a cauldron gives the Games an aura. Without its concomitant rituals, the Olympics wouldn’t be what it is today.

The flame is lit using sun’s rays and a parabolic mirror at the Temple or Hera in Olympia a few months before the Games. A Greek woman in classical costume acts as a high priestess during the ceremony, which is choreographed as per ancient traditions.

The flame is then transported to Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium, the venue of the first modern Games. The Greek Olympic Committee is in charge of the ceremony at Olympia and the subsequent relay run to the Panathenaic Stadium. Then the organising committee of the Games takes control of the flame and decides the route of the torch relay to the main stadium.

The Olympic torch was carried — mainly by sportspersons — on foot for the Berlin Games. When the Games resumed in 1948 after World War II, the same practice was followed. But there was no fixed rule on the mode of transportation of the torch and people who carry it. Subsequent editions used novel ways to make the torch relay memorable.

Carrying the torch is an emotional experience and lighting the cauldron at the stadium is the highlight of the opening ceremony.

Greek actress Ino Menegaki was the high priestess for the 2012 London Games. British-born Greek open water swimming champion Spyros Gianniotis was the first torchbearer.

Here is a recap on memorable torch relays in the modern Olympic history.

London 1948: World War II had left a trail of devastation across Europe, so world peace was the central theme of the 1948 Games torch relay. The first runner, Corporal Dimirelis, took off his military uniform before touching the flame to symbolise peace.

Mexico City 1968: The relay retraced the journey of Christopher Columbus to the New World. The flame made a stop at Genoa, the explorer’s hometown, and at Palos, Spain, from where he set off on his momentous journey.

Cristobal Colon de Carbajal, a direct descendant of Columbus, was the last runner on Spanish soil. The torch also touched base at San Salvador, an island in the Bahamas where the explorer landed in 1492.

Seoul 1988: The participation of 76-year-old Sohn Kee-chung in the relay moved the Koreans to tears. When Korea was under the Japanese occupation, Sohn won a marathon gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He competed under the Japanese name of Kitei Son. The Korean hero Sohn became a central figure in the torch relay.

Sydney 2000: After visiting 12 Oceanic countries, the torch started its Australian journey from Uluru, a sacred site of indigenous people. Aboriginal hockey player Nova Peris-Kneebone was the first runner and another Aborigine, Cathy Freeman, lit the cauldron in an unforgettable opening ceremony.

Athens 2004: The relay covered 78,000km spanning all the five continents. It visited all the previous Summer Games host cities.

Beijing 2008: The torch run lasted 129 days and covered 1,37,000kms. The flame also reached the summit of Mount Everest.

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