Philip Barker

The magnificent Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens is where representatives of Rio de Janeiro will tomorrow formally take charge of the Olympic flame for 2016 after Greek rower Katerina Nikolaidou has lit a special golden cauldron to end a journey of 2,235 kilometres around Greece.

There is no more fitting place to welcome a new Olympic city than this magnificent marble Stadium, restored to its ancient splendour more than a century ago for the 1896 Games.

The first Olympic Torch Relay came much later. It was held 80 years ago and only twice since then has the fire of Olympia not visited Athens. Civil war raged in 1948 as the flame was lit for London. A Hellenic navy vessel took it from the port of Katakolo to Corfu.


In 1984, Los Angeles Games organisers outlined a plan for runners in America to pay to carry the flame. The proceeds were intended to fund youth sport in the United States but the idea angered Greek authorities, in particular Olympia’s Mayor Spyros Fotinos. As a result there was no great pageantry in Ancient Olympia or Athens, just a very low-key handover of the flame in a safety lamp. It was flown straight to New York City.

The Princess Royal accepted the Olympic flame on behalf of London 2012
The Princess Royal accepted the Olympic flame on behalf of London 2012 ©Getty Images

Four years ago, London made up for their lost visit in 1948. Umbrellas were the order of the day for the Princess Royal, President of the British Olympic Association, and former England football captain David Beckham as they took delivery of the flame.

The entry of the Torch featured many notable Greek Olympians and, in a move designed to symbolise the link between past Olympic cities, weighlifting champion Pyrros Dimos, Greek Flagbearer in 2004 and Chinese gymnastics superstar Li Ning lit the bowl in Athens. Li Ning had flown through the air at Beijing in 2008 to light the Cauldron, but in Athens, he stayed on the ground. Incidentally, the first Torchbearer for Rio 2016 last week was also a gymnast, Lefterios Petrounias.

As the priestesses entered the Stadium to perform one final dance before the final handover, there was a ripple of recognition for the music. Imagine by John Lennon played by Harp.

"It was as a surprise for London," said ceremony choreographer Artemis Ignatiou. "It was an idea that I had with the composer. We used it only in the Handover Ceremony since I believe the lighting ceremony should remain archaic. I can't say if we will try something like that again or there will be another surprise for Rio."

The first Olympic Relay had visited Athens in 1936 before heading north overland to reach Berlin. Andreas Paouris, a distance runner from the 1928 Games in Amsterdam carried the flame down from the Acropolis Hill.

As he did so, the actor Nikolaos Rozan spoke: "Torchbearer, announce to the world that the Olympic spirit has not died."

The flame was carried into the ancient Stadium by another long distance runner, Alexandros Kranis, who was greeted by a huge roar from a crowd, including the King of Greece. The ceremonial Evzones displayed the flags of all the competing nations in Berlin and there was also a display of ancient Games and dances. After the festivities, the flame headed towards the Bulgarian border and continued overland to Berlin.

The Olympic fire did not return to Athens until 1952. When the runners left the Stadium they headed for the airport, as the flame travelled by air for the first time on the way to Helsinki.

It was set for a much longer flight in 1956. The Olympics were in Melbourne and two Greek guards in the uniform of marathon warriors barred the way of the runner as he approached the Acropolis. The runner raised his Torch with the cry, "I am bringing the flame of Olympia", and was allowed to enter.

A special miners lamp, provided by the Saar National Olympic Committee was used to transport the flame all the way to Australia.

It continued to visit Athens for each Olympiad, but in 1976, the runners headed south through the Peloponnese. Previously, the Relay had always taken a northern route.

There was also an innovation when the flame was passed to the host city of Montreal. Angela Simota, a Canadian of Greek extraction, held the Torch to an electronic receiver which transmitted the flame to Ottawa.

The Olympic flame for the 1976 Games in Montreal was transmitted from Athens to Montreal electronically ©Philip Barker
The Olympic flame for the 1976 Games in Montreal was transmitted from Athens to Montreal electronically ©Philip Barker

Waiting on Parliament Hill was the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. "If the ancient Greeks had been able to see this instantaneous transmission of the flame, they would have considered it an act of the gods," he said.

The Greeks literally pushed the boat out with the 1988 Torch Relay. A Trireme carried the flame to Athens. At the Stadium, the unmistakable sound of Vangelis accompanied long jump champion Dimitris Hatzopolous as he entered the Stadium. The flame was enthusiastically received by members of the Organising Committee from Seoul.

There was similar emotion in 1992. Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall recited the first verses of the anthem for the ill-fated 1936 Peoples Olympiad in Barcelona, cut short by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War

"Not for hate, not for war do we come to struggle in every land. Beneath the blue sky our only cry is one of joy: peace. Away with envy, away with shackles, against a narrow life we claim our right to make a cleaner air to make a world abloom with roses."

The 1996 Torch Relay to Atlanta began in March, much earlier than any. It celebrated the Centennial Olympic Games of the modern era.

Before the arrival of the flame, organisers staged a re-enactment of athletics at the first Games of the modern era. Athletes were drawn from the nations which had competed in 1896 and wore specially designed costumes which reflected the period.

"The same regulations used during the first Olympic Games will apply," said organisers.

The 1896 rule book was used for all events except pole vault and high jump. "In certain cases the rules were difficult to use since the personal safety of modern athletes could be in danger," officials ruled. 

Darkness had fallen by the time windsurfer Nikos Kaklamanakis and high jumper Niki Bakoyanni entered the Stadium carrying the flame. It was the first time that a man and a woman had been joint Torchbearers. Fireworks burst into life in celebration of the centenary and as the pair lit the flame, the choir and orchestra performed a magnificent rendition of the Olympic anthem, composed by Spiros Samaras for the 1896 Games in that very Stadium.

A parade of nations marked the Olympic flame handover for Atlanta 1996, the Centennial Games ©Philip Barker
A parade of nations marked the Olympic flame handover for Atlanta 1996, the Centennial Games ©Philip Barker

Medallists representing each previous host city participated in a relay. It was begun by Voula Patalidou, the 1992 100 metres hurdles champion to represent Greece. Other runners included 1972 champions Renate Stecher and Heidi Rosendahl to represent the German cities of Berlin and Munich, Michel Jazy for Paris, British Olympic swimming gold medallist Adrian Moorhouse, and International Olympic Committee member Anita De Frantz joined Olympic champion Roger Kingdom to represent the US.

They passed a specially-manufactured Torch from hand to hand. Each runner was then taken in a horse-drawn landau to the Hotel Grande Bretagne, a short distance away on Syntagma Square.

It was also on this night that the Greeks announced they were to bid for the 2004 Games, having been controversially defeated by Atlanta for the Centennial Olympics. In little more than a year, they were celebrating victory in the race to become host city. Instead of a very short Torch Relay, the organisers planned an ambitious international route which embraced every previous host city and many other symbolic destinations. They invited runners to "Pass the Flame, Unite the World".

The flame was taken to the Panathinaiko Stadium before it was journeyed across the world. The designated final runner that night was 200m runner Katerina Thanou. She was expected to win the old medal for Greece but ultimately she never went to her marks in the Olympic Stadium. She was excluded from the Games after a drug scandal which came to a head less than 24 hours before the Opening Ceremony.

Triple jumper Pigi Devetzi, a silver medallist in Athens 2004, had similar problems with the doping authorities after she lit the Cauldron in 2008 en route for Beijing.

The Torch Relay for Beijing 2008 was marked by worldwide demonstrations ©Getty Images
The Torch Relay for Beijing 2008 was marked by worldwide demonstrations ©Getty Images

Dubbed the "Journey of Harmony", there were demonstrations against Chinese Government policy in Tibet from the very outset when journalists from Reporters Without Borders unveiled a flag in protest at Ancient Olympia. Unprecedented security surrounded the handover in Athens. Though Beijing 2008 President Liu Qi spoke of "the Olympic flame brimming with friendship and sincere wishes of the Greek people",  further demonstrations at many of the international destinations told a different story.

For Rio 2016, the ceremony will also feature the formal send off for the Greek Olympic team by Sakis Rouvas, the Greek X Factor host. He’s used to Olympic ceremonies. He sang at the closing of Athens 2004.

Final Torchbearer Nikolaidou will be one of those suitably encouraged by Sakis. She is due to make her Olympic debut at 2016 Rio with team-mate Sophia Assoumanaki.

The flame itself will head for the Olympic Capital Lausanne, and the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

It is due to finally land in Brasilia on May 3 to start what is sure to be a 95-day Olympic carnival.

Alan Hubbard's blog will appear on Friday (April 29)