Philip Barker

The Olympic Cauldron which stands at the heart of the village in Ancient Olympia is a reminder of the only year three Olympic flames were lit in the same year. It happened 60 years ago.

The Winter Olympic Games used to be held in the same year as the Summer Games and this was the case in 1956 when Cortina D’Ampezzo in Italy was chosen.

The flame was not lit in Olympia in Greece but at the Capitol building in Rome, although it burned in a bowl sent from Olympia. A procession of the Fedeli Vitorchiano, a ceremonial guard, accompanied a footman who carried it through the corridors and halls of the Capitol.

When it reached the balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campidoglio, it was greeted with a fanfare of trumpets and a symbolic release of doves. Clemente Cardinal Micara, Vicar General of Rome, offered a blessing before Mayor Salvatore Rebecchini lit the first Torch. Adolfo Consolini, the Olympic discus champion in 1948, carried it across the Piazza del Campidoglio.

’’Wild applause broke out as Consolini descended,’’ reports of the ceremony said. He passed young gymnasts and the men of the Alpine patrol, skis at the ready. Waiting at the edge of the square in an open top car was 1952 50 kilometre walk champion Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Dordoni, who told reporters that ‘’of all the honours he had received in sport, this was the greatest".

The car sped past the Colosseum and along the Appian Way to the airport, flanked by an escort of 100 sportsmen on motorcycles and scooters. The journey through the city had enjoyed bright winter sunshine but the flight to Venice was delayed by fog over the lagoon. As a precaution, organisers had sent a reserve flame by car but throughout the Relay this was used only once.

The Olympic Cauldron stands in Ancient Olympia
The Olympic Cauldron stands in Ancient Olympia ©Philip Barker

A ceremony in Venice's St Mark's Square featured skier Adriano Guarnieri, Italy’s flag bearer 20 years earlier at the 1936 Winter Olympics. The flame travelled along the Grand Canal with the procession of gondolas which accompanied the Torch to Mestre  "particularly impressive" according to the official report.

Back on dry land it was carried by a team of roller skaters led by world champion Anna Vianello.

In several cases it was difficult for the couriers to get through and organisers estimated crowds of 50,000 to see the flame pass at Treviso and Belluno.

Finally, the flame approached Cortina. Skier Zeno Colo took it down the slopes towards the stadium. His progress was marked for the whole valley to see by a series of red, white and green rockets, fired as he passed. Down in the centre of the town, cross-country skiing champion Enrico Colli took the flame through cheering crowds to the stadium.

In recent times, the identity of the cauldron lighter has been a closely guarded secret but in 1956 it was revealed months before that speed skater Guido Caroli had been chosen. Unfortunately, he tripped over a trailing wire in the stadium. He did not allow the flame to go out but was still inconsolable after.

”I feel so ashamed,’’ he said. There was at least a happy postscript. When the Winter Games returned to Italy 50 years later, he was a special guest at the Opening Ceremony in Turin.

In 1956, Australia’s strict quarantine regulations made it necessary for equestrian events to be held thousands of miles away from the rest of the Olympics in Stockholm. It was the first and only time this has happened.

On June 2, 1956, the high priestess kindled the Olympic fire from the rays of the sun. Greek runner Takis Konstantinidis was the first in a Relay over 325 kilometres to Athens.

From there, it was flown to Scandinavia where it made a brief stop over in Denmark.

At Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport, Captain Lars Kirkebjerg, a member of the 1956 Danish three-day eventing team, was the first to receive it on horseback.

Women had not taken an official part in Torch Relays before, but in Copenhagen town centre, 1952 dressage silver medallist Lis Hartel rode through the streets bearing the flame. It remained at Copenhagen’s city hall that night before it was flown to Malmo.

There it was received by Britta Eriksson, head of the Malmo Auxiliary Women’s Autocorps. Her organisation would provide support throughout the Relay.

The Cavalry Captain Axel Stahle was an appropriate choice as first bearer. In 1924, he had been part of the team which won the Show Jumping Grand Prix.

The Torches were similar to those used in 1948. Organisers envisaged they would burn for 30 minutes but unseasonable stormy weather meant they lasted no more than ten and emergency supplies were flown in.

When the riders reached the University town of Upsala, Colour Sergeant Albin Persson passed the flame to 1920 eventing gold medallist Count Helmer Morner.

An Italian newspaper details the Torch Relay for Cortina D’Ampezzo
An Italian newspaper details the Torch Relay for Cortina D’Ampezzo ©Philip Barker

Finally,  after five days and nights of travel, the flame reached the outskirts of Stockholm. Many women riders had played an important role in the Relay and Wera Collett took the flame to outside the stadium. Inside, Hans Wikne rode past the royal box to light the cauldron.

Henry Eriksson, Sweden’s 1500m gold medallist from 1948,  was joined by 1952 gymnastics champion Karin Lindberg. They took Torches to the far end of the stadium to salute the crowd from the towers placed there, but it is not thought that these burned throughout the Games.

Melbourne’s Olympic Games were to open that November. The Australian organisers had come in for heavy criticism from International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage for their lack of progress during the preparation phase.

The idea of the Torch Relay had really caught the imagination. In June 1950, the President of the Botany Harriers running club Chick Hensley had suggested a Relay from Darwin to Melbourne. By 1953 an official organising committee progress report had spoken of "arrangements being considered for the kindling of the Olympic flame" .

Sporting organisations had even been sounding  out potential runners. It was agreed that the flame would be transported from Cairns to Melbourne. This was a considerable logistical undertaking but it was not until June 1956 that Melbourne’s technical boss Billy Holt appointed a flame supremo. With barely five months to get everything ready, Marcus Marsden, a member of the geology department at the University of Melbourne, rose to the challenge magnificently .

The regulations forbade the participation of women, and professionals were also banned.

“The reference to women and professionals was a reflection of the times and I believe it came from Holt,’’ wrote Marsden. The attitude to professionals displayed by Brundage was very similar.

Marsden was "authorised in any dangerous situation which may arise to take such action as you think fit to rectify the situation’’.

This flame had been lit in Ancient Olympia on November 2, the latest it had ever been lit for a Summer Games. The sun did not shine at the prescribed moment so a flame lit during rehearsal was used. Local man Dionyssios Papathanassopoloulos started the Relay. When it reached Athens, it was transferred to a special safety lamp donated by the Saar Olympic Committee. An escalation in the Suez Crisis delayed its progress.

When the plane did eventually take off, it passed through Iraq, Pakistan and Singapore, the longest journey yet. It finally touched down at Darwin in the Northern Territories. Permission was given for an unofficial event. They did not use the regulation Torches but included eight women in spite of the ban. As it was not officially part of the Relay, no-one received the commemorative medallions given to other participants.

The flame boarded a military aircraft for the final leg of its journey to Cairns where the relay on foot was to begin. Even this was delayed. It was stormy but this did not cause undue alarm for the Royal Australian Air Force. Their log stated simply that ‘’An 84-223 flew the Olympic Torch to Cairns despite marginal weather on the coast".

Con Verevis, Australian born and of Greek descent, was the first Torch carrier. He handed the Torch to Aboriginal Anthony Mark.

The Torch made a long journey to Melbourne
The Torch made a long journey to Melbourne ©Philip Barker

When the Relay reached Mackay in Queensland, locals greeted it with a street parade. There was even a float on ‘The glory that was Greece’ on which the local Greek community stood in traditional costumes.

The runners carefully avoided areas where there was heavy flooding but in the heat of an Australian summer, often discovered that the road surface was melting almost beneath their feet.

As the flame made its way south, crowds intensified. There was even a glorious hoax. In Sydney, a runner called Barry Larkin approached city hall with the Torch and made the presentation to Mayor Pat Hills who launched into a speech of welcome. Closer examination revealed that the ‘Torch’ was in fact a plum pudding tin lashed to a chair leg.

On the opening day of the Games, magnesium was added to the flame to make it show up. The final bearer was Ron Clarke who later recalled that ‘it wasn’t a flame,  it sparked’’. Many reported that Clarke’s arm had been seriously burned by the sparks.

“I wasn’t burned, the hairs on my arm were singed that’s all, but my t-shirt was burnt to smithereens,” he said.

Clarke, destined never to win Olympic gold himself, was the final Torchbearer of a unique year. It is surely a measure of the inspirational power of the greatest Olympic symbol that many of the runners in Australia forged lasting friendships that endured more than half a century.

There will never again be three flames in a year. Since 1994, the Winter Games have been held in a separate year and after 2020 even the Youth Olympics are set to be staged in the year after the Olympiad.