The Fascinating Journey of the Olympic Torch Relay


Contrary to popular belief, the Ancient Greeks did not organize the first Olympic Torch relay during the ancient Olympics. They did, however use fire.

The Ancient Greeks considered fire to be a divine element, and they maintained perpetual fires in front of their principal temples. This was the case in the sanctuary of Olympia, where the Ancient Olympic Games took place. The flame was lit using the rays of the sun, to ensure its purity, and a skaphia, the ancestor of the parabolic mirror used today for lighting the Olympic flame. A flame burned permanently on the altar of the goddess Hestia, and such fires
were also lit on the altars of Zeus and Hera, in front of whose temple the Olympic flame is lit today.

The actual torch relay is a relatively “modern” creation.

It has been right around the world, gone into space and scaled Everest. Over the last 80 years, the Olympic torch has been carried by hundreds of thousands of people and travelled on every imaginable form of transport, though mostly by foot. Here, we recount the epic tale of the Olympic torch relay.

A flame made its first appearance of the modern era at Amsterdam 1928, where it was lit atop a tower overlooking the Olympic Stadium, the venue for the athletics events. Another one also presided over the scene at Los Angeles’s Olympic Stadium four years later, this time at the top of the gateway to the arena, which resembled the Arc de Triomphe.

It was not until Berlin 1936, however, that the Olympic torch relay – the brainchild of the university lecturer and sports theorist Carl Diem – was first staged. As continues to be the custom today, the flame was lit in Olympia, Greece, in the same way as it was in ancient times, with the aid of a parabolic mirror reflecting the sun’s rays. Attending the lighting ceremony was Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, who wished the runners taking part in the inaugural relay every success.

The idea of using a torch to transport the flame was not adopted straightaway. Taking inspiration from ancient ways, the Organising Committee of the Berlin Games had initially planned to convey the flame by means of a bundle of slow-burning fennel stalks. For practical reasons, however, it was finally decided to use a torch for the job, with the Organising Committee requesting the creation of a specific design, given that there were no torches on the market capable of meeting their criteria.

The first torchbearer on that maiden Relay was the Greek Konstantinos Kondylis, with Germany’s Fritz Schilgen the 3,075th and last. On its journey between Olympia and Berlin, the torch made its way through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia, finally reaching the Olympic Stadium on 1 August 1936.

In the years that followed, the story of the Olympic flame began to unfold like an epic novel, with each Olympiad producing its own unique tales, played out by a cast of hundreds of thousands of runners over distances both great and small and on every possible form of transport.

For its part, the London 1948 Torch Relay was completed almost entirely on foot, with 1,416 torch-bearers carrying the flame from Olympia to Corfu and on to Italy, from Bari in the south to Milan in the north.

After crossing the Swiss border it reached Lausanne, where a special ceremony was held before the tomb of De Coubertin. From there the flame travelled on to eastern France, Luxembourg, Brussels and Calais, taking a boat across the Channel, disembarking in Dover and finally reaching London on 29 July. The final leg of the Relay saw it being carried from Wembley Stadium, where the cauldron was lit, to Torquay, the venue for the sailing competitions.

The flame goes global

The flame went airborne for the first time on the Helsinki 1952 Torch Relay, flying to the Danish city of Aalborg following an initial journey between Olympia and Athens. After making its way across Denmark and into Sweden, it passed through Gothenburg and Stockholm and then crossed the Finnish border at Tornio. From there it was borne to Tampere and on to Helsinki, the final destination of a 7,492 km journey involving a grand total of 3,042 runners, the last of them being Hanne Koelhmainen, a multiple Olympic track and field medallist.

The Melbourne 1956 Torch Relay was unique in two ways. Firstly, it was the first to venture into the southern hemisphere, travelling from Singapore to Djakarta before taking to the air and calling in at a number of cities around Asia. On reaching Darwin, it flew on to Cairns and was then carried all the way along the Pacific coast to Melbourne. Secondly, with the equestrian events being held in Stockholm that year, a separate relay took the flame from Olympia to Athens, from where it was flown to Copenhagen, Malmo and on to the Swedish capital, where, for the one and only time in Olympic history, a second cauldron was lit, a small matter of 15,600 km away from Melbourne.

Taking centre stage in the Rome 1960 Torch Relay were a number of ancient sites in Greece, Sicily, Reggio Calabria, Taranto, Naples and Rome, the idea being to put the spotlight on the Greek and Roman civilisations and highlight the link between the modern and ancient Games. This was also the first relay to be televised.

Following stages in Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Lahore, New Delhi, Kolkata, Rangoon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hong Kong and Taipei, the Tokyo 1964 Torch Relay bore the flame to Okinawa, the largest of Japan’s southern islands. Its next destination was Kagoshima, situated at one end of the country’s main island of Honshu, at which point it branched off in four different directions, covering the whole of the country, all the way up to Chitose, on the island of Hokkaido.

Finally, on 9 September 1964, the last torch-bearers came together in front of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace to light a cauldron, with a final leg then taking the flame to the city’s Olympic Stadium, where the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron went to Yoshinori Sakai. Nicknamed “Baby Hiroshima” on account of having been born in the southern city on 6 August 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped there, Sakai was a fitting choice as the final torch-bearer, symbolising, as he did, both peace and hope.

The Mexico City 1968 Torch Relay used four different torches and was inspired by the adventures of the Genoa-born Christopher Columbus, the first explorer from the western world to set foot in the New World, which he “discovered” it in the name of Isabella Queen of Spain in 1492. Following the now-traditional stage between Olympia and Athens, the flame arrived in Genoa, where a ceremony was held in front of the house where Columbus lived. Its next port of call was Barcelona, the legendary explorer’s destination on his return from the Americas.

The flame was carried across Spain to Palos, from where Columbus set sail westwards on 3 August 1492. The last torch-bearer on this section of the Relay was a direct descendant of his by the name of Cristóbal Colón de Carbajal. After crossing the Atlantic, the flame arrived in San Salvador in the Bahamas, where Columbus first landed, believing he had arrived in the Indies via a new sea route.

From there the Relay moved on to Veracruz in Mexico, passing through Teotihuacan, the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, where a ceremony was staged in front of more than 50,000 spectators. Finally, on 12 October 1968, the cauldron was lit at Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium by the athlete Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo, the very first time in the history of the Games that a woman was given the honour of doing so.

From Munich 1972 to Seoul 1988

On 28 July 1972 the flame set off from Olympia for a Relay that would cover 5,532 km and involve 6,200 torch-bearers. Its final destination was Munich, the host city of the XX Olympiad of the modern era. En route it took in Athens and Thessaloniki, made a detour to Istanbul and then headed to Germany via Varna in Bulgaria, Bucharest in Romania, Belgrade in Yugoslavia, Budapest in Hungary and Vienna in Austria.

The flame also stopped off in Innsbruck and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, both of them former Winter Games host cities. It was eventually greeted in Munich at a special reception ceremony at the Königsplatz, attended by 20,000 spectators. Representing Europe at the Opening Ceremony, the final torch-bearer, Günther Zahn, was joined by runners from the four other continents: Kipchoge Keino (representing Africa), Jim Ryun (America), Kenji Kimihara (Asia) and Derek Clayton (Oceania). Separate flames were then carried to Kiel, the venue of the sailing events, and Augsburg, where the rowing competitions were held.

The Montreal 1976 Torch Relay saw an amazing technological development. On the evening of the flame’s arrival in Athens from Olympia, a ceremony was staged at the Panathinaiko Stadium, where the flame was positioned in front of a sensor that detected ionised particles from it. Converted into encoded impulses, they were then sent them via satellite to Ottawa. On the arrival of the signal in the Canadian capital, a laser beam reflected on a parabolic mirror recreated the flame in its original form in a cauldron situated on Parliament Hill.

The first kilometre of the Canadian section of the Relay was completed by 12 runners representing the ten provinces and two territories that formed the country at the time, each of them carrying a torch with the flame. At the end of their legs, the 12 runners came together and passed the flame on to another runner.

In making its way from the capital to Montreal, the Relay flanked the Ottawa River, passing from one bank to another along the way. The flame’s arrival at the Olympic Stadium saw another piece of history, with two people lighting the cauldron for the first time: Sarah Anderson, an English-speaking Canadian from Toronto, and Stéphane Préfontaine, a French-speaking compatriot from Montreal.

Starting on 19 June 1980 in Olympia and reaching its conclusion on 19 July at Moscow’s Lenin Stadium, the Torch Relay of the XXII Olympiad was completed entirely on foot and took a northerly route, with some 5,435 torch-bearers ferrying it safely through Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, and a crowd of 40,000 turning up to see it in Bucharest. The Olympic flame entered the Soviet Union at Chisinau, on the Romanian border, and made its way up to Moscow via Kiev and Belgorod. On the very eve of the Games, a cauldron was lit in Sovietskaya Square, with four separate torches then being lit and carried to the subsites of Tallinn, Leningrad, Minsk and Kiev.

The Los Angeles 1984 Torch Relay crossed the United States from east to west on a winding, 15,000-km route. Lit in Olympia on 7 May, the flame flew to New York 24 hours later. Waiting for it there, in front of the United Nations Headquarters, were the Relay’s first two torch-bearers, Gina Hemphill and Bill Thorpe Jr, respective descendants of the legendary athletes Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe. In the weeks that followed the flame was carried through 33 states in all, as well as Washington D.C.

After moving through the south, from Dallas to Texas, and heading as far north as Seattle in Washington State, the flame arrived at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Opening Ceremony on 28 July 1984, where the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson climbed 96 steps to light the cauldron. The very same cauldron that had been used at the 1932 Games – also held in the Californian city – it stood over 45 metres high.

After making the journey from Greece to Bangkok ahead of Seoul 1988, the flame arrived on Korean soil on the island of Jeju, to the south of the peninsula, from where it sailed to the port of Busan on a ship named Olympia 88. Involving 1,467 people of all ages, among them celebrities, artists and athletes, the Torch Relay that followed saw the flame travel right across the Republic of Korea on foot and by car, bike, motorbike and horse on a zigzagging route from east to west and north to south, finally arriving in Seoul in the suburb of Incheon.

Held on 17 September at the city’s Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Ceremony saw the last three torch-bearers – Won Takkim, Sun Manchung and Mi Chungsohn – lifted 22 metres into the air on a special elevator in order to light the cauldron, which measured 5.5 metres in diameter and was perched on top of an eight-sided pole.

Relay goes galactic

No one who saw it could ever forget the lighting of the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of Barcelona 1992, held on 25 July. Taking up position in the centre of the Montjuic Olympic Stadium, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo took hold of a burning arrow lit by the flame and fired it at the cauldron, setting light to it.

Prior to that memorable moment, the Barcelona Torch Relay had seen the flame travel from Olympia to Athens and then hitch a ride on the frigate Cataluña all the way to the ancient Greek settlement of Empuries, in Catalonia. Covering a distance of 5,940 km, a total of 9,484 torchbearers (8,885 runners and 599 cyclists) then took the torch through 652 cities, towns and villages, including the capitals of the Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. The Relay also took in the Canary Islands and the Balearics.

Atlanta 1996 marked the centenary of the modern Games, a landmark celebrated by the initial relay from Olympia to Athens, which was followed by a ceremony at the Panathinaiko Stadium, where representatives of the host cities of the 17 previous Olympic Summer Games each received a lamp containing the Olympic flame, which they duly took home with them so that tribute could be paid to it.

The starting point for the American leg of the Relay was Los Angeles, from where it embarked on a 26,875-km journey around the country, with some 12,467 torchbearers taking part. The Atlanta 1996 Torch Relay also saw the flame go into space for the first time, aboard the shuttle Columbia. Following its return to Earth, boxing great Muhammad Ali provided the highlight of the Opening Ceremony at the city’s Olympic Stadium on 19 July 1996, taking hold of the torch and lighting the cauldron with it.

What made the Sydney 2000 Torch Relay unique was the fact that it took place mostly at sea, with the torch voyaging from one Pacific island or nation to the next en route to Australia: from Guam to New Zealand, from Papua New Guinea to the Cook Islands, from Micronesia to Tonga, and from Vanuatu to Samoa. In late June that year, the flame even went beneath the waves for an underwater leg at the Great Barrier Reef. A special torch also went up into space, with the shuttle Atlantis conveying it all the way to the International Space Station.

When it finally reached Australia, 11,000 torch-bearers took it on a tour of the entire country. In the crowning moment of the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on 15 September 2000, the 100th anniversary of the admission of women to the Olympics was marked by the appearance of seven of Australia’s greatest female athletes. Bethy Cuthbert, Raelene Boyle, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King each took turns to carry the torch before Indigenous Australian track and field star Cathy Freeman completed the very last leg, climbing a flight of steps, stepping into a circular pool of water and light a ring of flame, which then rose into the air above her, as fireworks soared into the Sydney night sky.

The Torch Relay that hailed the return of the Games to Athens in 2004 was the first to go right around the world, across the five continents, mirroring the five Olympic rings. Its numerous ports of call included all the host cities of the modern era, a host of the world’s other great cities and, in a first for the relay, Africa, with the torch travelling between Cairo in the north and Cape Town in the south.

On finally reaching Greece, the flame embarked on a final tour that lasted a little over a month, setting off from Crete and taking in 32 islands and 24 historic sites across the country’s 54 prefectures. The man given the task of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony on 13 August 2004 was 1996 Olympic windsurfing champion Níkos Kaklamanákis.

On its way to Beijing in 2008, the torch made it right to the top of the world, with a team of climbers taking it to the summit of Everest via the Chinese side. Prior to that the flame had travelled the five continents and been relayed through 19 major cities, including St Petersburg, London, Paris, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, Bangkok, Dar es Salaam, Canberra, Nagano and Seoul.

After then arriving at Hong Kong, it passed through 31 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions before reaching Sichuan, which had been hit by a devastating earthquake on 12 May. Then, at the end of an Opening Ceremony held at the Bird’s Nest on 8 August 2008, and which had got under way at 8.08 p.m. on the dot, the final torch-bearer, legendary Chinese gymnast Li Ning, was hoisted on a cable up to the giant screen encircling the stadium roof. After completing a full airborne lap of the stadium, he lit the cauldron to the roars of the crowd.

The London 2012 Torch Relay, the last before Rio 2016, began with an eight-day tour of Greece and continued at Land’s End, the extreme southwestern point of the British Isles, with sailing icon Ben Ainslie the first to bear the torch in a Relay that featured a cast of runners dressed all in white and which went by the name of “Moment to Shine”. Unfolding on water (in myriad craft that included rowing boats, yachts and steam ships), rail, road and by air, it followed a course that passed within no more than an hour of 95 percent of the population of the UK, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony, the flame was ferried from Tower Bridge to the Olympic Stadium by speedboat, with David Beckham and the young footballer Jade Bailey clutching the torch, which they then passed on to five-time Olympic rowing champion Sir Steven Redgrave. Symbolising the generational handover, he then passed the flame on to seven young athletes aged between 16 and 19 (Callum Airlie, Jordan Duckitt, Desiree Henry, Katie Kirk, Cameron MacRitchie, Aidan Reynolds and Adelle Tracey), who had the honour of lighting a cauldron formed by 204 copper petals representing all the nations taking part at the Games.

From the International Olympic Committee.


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