The Olympic Flame: an enduring symbol of the Games that burns forever
Sunday, 06 May 2012
It is the simplest symbol of the Olympics, but certainly the most potent.
In Ancient Olympia, the flame is lit from the rays of the sun and passes in a relay of many hands that will take it to the Olympic Stadium.
It is where on Thursday (May 10) the journey for the Olympic Flame to London 2012 will begin.
Classical Greek actress Ino Menegaki (pictured below) is only the tenth person to play the role of the high priestess, responsible for carrying out the ritual. She will, in the words of one former performer, "carry the weight of Greece on her shoulders".
Thousands make their way from the town of Olympia for the ceremony.
Away from the crowds, the President of the International Olympic Committee lays a wreath at the memorial to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who revived the modern Olympic Games.
In the Stadium, they raise that famous five-ringed flag to the strains of the Olympic Anthem by Spiro Samaras – first performed at the 1896 Games in Athens.
The poem Light of Olympia by Takis Dokis is recited. It makes a clarion call to the athletes of the world:
"Tell them all to start for Olympia, thousands, thousands and thousands of Youths, to enter the wide open gate to compete."
As high noon approaches, the scene switches to the temple of Hera, where the high priestess appears. Surrounded by escort of younger priestesses, she first recites a prayer to Apollo:
"Sacred Silence, Let the sky, the earth, the sea and the winds sound, Mountains fall silent, sounds and birdsong cease.
"Apollo, King of the sun and the idea of light, send your rays and light the sacred torch.
"Apollo, God of Sun and the idea of light , send your rays and light the torch for the hospitable city of London."
Then she lights the flame in a parabolic bowl, using a bespoke torch fashioned from beaten silver in Greece. Ever practical, organisers monitor the weather forecast and keep the flames lit at rehearsal, just in case there is unforeseen cloud when the moment comes.
As the priestesses make their way through the sacred groves, a small child symbolising vitality and youth cuts an olive branch, before at last a senior priestess, the "Estiada", carries an amphora or bowl (pictured above) containing the flame into the stadium. The first runner, Spiros Gianniotis, is invited to step forward and light his torch. He carries it away from the stadium, stops briefly at the Coubertin memorial to pay homage to the founder before passing the flame to the second runner. So begins the journey to London.
Not until the flame reaches Athens is it formally handed over to the Host City in another ceremony at the Panathinaiko Stadium where the first Olympic Games was staged in 1896. There was no torch relay at those Games or at any of the other early celebrations.
It is thought that a brazier may have burned briefly at the stadium during the 1912 Games in Stockholm, but the idea of an Olympic fire was already in Coubertin's mind when he addressed the Closing Ceremony.
"A great people has received the torch of the Olympiads from your hands, and has thereby undertaken to preserve and if possible to quicken its precious flame," he stated.
In 1928, Amsterdam stadium archtect Jan Wils incorporated a Marathon Tower in his design.
'In order to let everyone know where the Olympic Games are being held, a column of smoke will rise out of the tower during the day, whereas at night, high columns of fire will announce the events," he said.
It made an impression on American Olympic Committee official Frederick Rubien.
"The fire was lit in the Marathon Tower to announce to all people of the world that peace, harmony and understanding must now reign."
Four years later, the flame burned once again in the Los Angeles Coliseum (pictured above in 1984) but there was still no relay.
But in 1934, the distinguished German sports teacher Carl Diem and his Greek associate Ioannis Ketseas lit the spark.
"It was at Olympia that it was decided to institute the Olympic Torch. Professor Carl Diem came to see me afterwards, so that together we might examine the means to be adopted for lighting and carrying the flame by relays of runners at every thousand metres," recalled Ketseas.
The Greek archaeologist, Alexander Philadelpheus, suggested that the flame should be lit, not by mechanical means, but from Apollo, "the god of light himself".
The idea really caught the imagination.
"Greece is summoned, after two-and-a-half thousand years, to give the light of its superior civilisation to the whole world. Greeks help us to convey the Olympic light."
In Germany, the Krupp factory made nearly four thousand torches (pictured below left) in polished steel. The shaft was inscribed with the route of the relay.
Meanwhile, organisers fretted about roaming sheep dogs and other hazards to the smooth progress of the run.
A secret dossier warned that the Communist Youth of Greece (OKNE) planned to infiltrate the run and then attack the flame, a strategy later employed during the protests over the Beijing Olympic Flame. Another memo highlighted the danger from thieves.
Others were more positive about the flame. A building scheme was started in Olympia "to give the whole area surrounding Olympia a dignified appearance in the eyes of foreign visitors". Visitors included a group of enthusiastic German philatelists who sent some 4,000 letters and postcards home on one single day.
A Greek choreographer called Aleka Katseli made her way to Olympia that summer with a small troupe of dancers to perform the lighting. German director Leni Riefenstahl was also there with a film crew, but such were the crowds that she was unable to shoot the ceremony in the manner she wished. So she decided to restage them. She came across a young runner, Anatol Dobriansky, who embodied the ideal of Greek youth. She persuaded him to accompany the crew to Delphi. He lit the flame from an altar inscribed with the Olympic rings. Riefenstahl had the sequences she wanted and Olympia is still considered as one of the greatest films ever made about the Games.
Thanks in no small measure to radio broadcasts from the route, thousands turned out at each stage to see the flame pass. As one report of the time said "only the sick stayed at home". It was carried overland through Central Europe to Berlin (pictured below in Berlin). The ageing Pierre de Coubertin did not attend the Olympics in 1936 but sent this message: "Remember the fire lit by the ardour of the sun that came to you from Olympia to shed light and bring warmth to our age."
Because of World War Two, the flame did not burn again for 12 years. The 1948 organisers rejected much else which had anything to do with Berlin, but realised the flame was something to promote the Olympic message.
The London Torch itself was designed by Ralph Lavers. It was 18 inches high, made of aluminium and inscribed "London XIV Olympiad with thanks to the bearer". Commander Bill Collins, a former naval officer was put in charge of organising the domestic relay but not everybody was delighted.
"An event based on such antiquarian sham and portentous symbolism is out of keeping with the spirit of the problems of the post war world and can contribute little to its prestige," screamed one newspaper headline.
Undeterred Collins pressed ahead, although plans to take the flame to Athens were shelved at the last minute because of civil unrest. Even the appointed high priestess could not reach Olympia because of the fighting, so a local girl was pressed into service to perform the ceremony. The first torchbearer, a Greek soldier called Konstantinos Dimitrelis, symbolically removed his uniform to reveal running kit.
The flame was taken from a local port to Corfu and on to Bari where the first runner ashore was an Australian cadet called H Potter carrying his own "goblet of fire".
Throughout its journey across Europe, the flame was escorted by British Olympic official Sandy Duncan, travelling in a Rolls Royce (pictured below).
Runners greeted Coubertin's widow Marie in Lausanne, before continuing through Luxembourg, Belgium and France to the coast.
After some persuasion, the Sea Lords had decided to allow HMS Bicester to transport the flame from Calais. With less than 24 hours until the Opening Ceremony at Wembley, Chief Petty Officer Herbert Barnes bounded down the gangplank at Dover, only for the flame to go out. It was hurriedly relit and passed to the first runner on British soil, one Sidney Doble of the Dover Cooperative Athletic Club. "I've been training on the smell of stakes for months," he said. Real steaks were out of the question with strict rationing in force.
The runners were chosen from athletics and sports clubs, and ran overnight to speed the flame to Wembley. Each was told: "This relay is raising the very widest interest throughout the world, and is one of the great symbols of the Olympic ideal. By participating, you are making a substantial contribution to this work and the Organising Committee would greatly appreciate your help."
By the time the flame arrived at Wembley, it was only a couple of minutes late. John Mark (pictured below), a medical student, emerged from the tunnel with a specially modified torch which had a magnesium flare to light the cauldron in front of King George VI.
Philip Noel Baker MP, an Olympic medallist, described the scene for the British Olympic report: "Tall and handsome like a young Greek god, he stood for a moment in the sunshine, held the torch aloft to salute the concourse and then ran in perfect rhythm around the track."The relay had been a great success. When the accounts came in, it was only £20 over budget.
Since then each Organising Committee has tried to put its own unique stamp on the relay.
In 1952, the Finns took theirs to the land of the midnight sun. The Games in 1956 was the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, in Melbourne. It began in November, and it was necessary to use the reserve flame to light the Olympic Flame in Olympia. This was not an omen, as this was considered among the most successful of all Games.
The regulations of the torch run stipulated that: "Women would not be permitted to take part in the relay nor would professionals."
Earlier in the year, however, gymnast Karin Lindberg had carried the flame in Stockholm. This was a separate relay held for the Equestrian competition, held in Sweden because of the prevailing quarantine laws in Australia.
In 1964, the high symbolism came at the very end of the relay. Yoshinori Sakai (pictured above), a 19-year-old, born on the very day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, lit the cauldron in Tokyo in a message of peace.
For the Mexico Games in 1968, the journey of the flame retraced the ocean voyage of Christopher Columbus to the new world. At the end of the relay a woman called Enriqueta Basilio lit the cauldron, barely twelve years after that ban on women.
The 1976 organiser, Paul Larue, announced another breakthrough to take the flame on its way to Montreal: "A highly advanced procedure to transmit the flame instantaneously from Greece to Canada by means of a satellite and laser beam."
Never before had the flame travelled so quickly, although it has been carried on horseback, cable car, rowing boat and even waterskis.
It has ventured underground, beneath the ocean to the Barrier Reef in 2000 on its way to Sydney, and to the summit of Mount Everest in 2008.
Some of the biggest sporting names have carried it, among them legendary Finnish runners Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen. And then there was the poignant choice of Korean Sohn Kee Chung in Seoul; forced to run the marathon in Japanese colours in 1936, he won gold. For many, his selection in 1988 symbolised the closing of an unhappy chapter in their nation's history.
Five-times rowing gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave, 'perfect ten' gymnast Nadia Comaneci, football hero Pele and boxing legend Muhammad Ali have all clutched that precious piece of flaming metal and, unforgettably, gymnast Li Ning (pictured above) soared towards the heavens to light the cauldron in Beijing.
Now the Olympic Flame begins its odyssey to London, the first city to twice receive the "fire of Olympia" for a summer Games.
Philip Barker, one of the world's most renowned sports historians, is the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley last month. To order a copy click here.