Philip Barker

In less than a month, the Olympic Flame will be on its way to Tokyo. Rio 2016 pistol shooting gold medallist Anna Korakaki will be the first Torchbearer. When she receives the first Flame, it will represent the latest Olympic milestone for women.

Never before has a woman carried the torch in the precincts of the stadium in Ancient Olympia.

Women were not permitted to participate in the Olympic Games of antiquity, although there were separate athletic contests for women.

It was this which apparently informed the convention that the first runner in the modern Torch Relay would always be male, even though women competed in the stadium when the Athens 2004 shot put competitions were held there.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who called for the revival of the Olympics in 1894, was no big fan of women’s sport.

“Can young women acquire a moral sense through sports? I do not believe so. Add a female element and the event becomes monstrous,” he wrote.

“At the Olympic Games, their role should be above all to crown the victors as was the case at the ancient tournaments.”

Yet when Korakaki carries the Flame next month, she will first head for a tree-lined  grove to pay silent homage at a monument to Coubertin himself. She will of course be the first female to do this.

A few moments later, she will pass the Flame to another woman - 2004 marathon champion Mizuki Noguchi, the first Japanese participant in the relay for 2020.

“I will pass on the Flame with my great memory from Athens 2004,” Noguchi has said. 

“Greece is a special place for me.”

Mizuki Noguchi has fond memories of Greece, having won the women's marathon at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images
Mizuki Noguchi has fond memories of Greece, having won the women's marathon at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images

Their exchange of the Flame will be a symbol of how the Torch Relay has been transformed in recent years.

When it first took place for the Berlin Olympics of 1936, a group of young women dancers were ‘priestesses’ at the lighting ritual.

Yet once the relay began, the Torchbearers were exclusively male.

This remained the case until the Helsinki Games of 1952.

"On Finland's roads men and women, boys and girls, bear the Torch along, escorted by dense crowds," said the official report.

When it arrived at the Olympic village, "women gymnasts formed a guard of honour."

Shortly after the Cauldron was lit in the stadium, there was an "unexpected intermezzo" when a German peace activist called Barbara Rotraut Pleyer attempted to read a speech. She was ushered away.

In 1956, a Flame was lit for the Winter Olympics in Cortina and also for the Olympic Games in Melbourne.

That June, a Flame was also kindled for the separate equestrian competitions in Stockholm.

Denmark’s 1952 dressage silver medallist Lis Hartel rode through the streets of Copenhagen with the Flame and when it reached Sweden, Britta Eriksson - head of the Malmö Auxiliary Women’s Autocorps - received it. Throughout its journey to Stockholm, her organisation provided support, the first time women had played such an extensive role in transporting the Flame.

On the day of the grand opening at the historic Stockholm Olympic Stadium, Wera Collett carried it to the gate.

She handed to Hans Wikne, who lit the Olympic Cauldron. Then gymnast Karin Lindberg was one of two runners to take Torches to the far end of the stadium. Many believe she was the first woman to light a Cauldron at an Olympic stadium.

At the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Olympic champion Andrea Mead Lawrence had a prominent role as the penultimate Torchbearer. She skied down the mountain from Little Papoose Peak to the stadium but then handed over to Olympic speed skating champion Ken Henry who actually lit the Cauldron.

Finally, in 1968, a woman was chosen to light the main Cauldron. The arrival of 400 metres runner Enriqueta Basilio, who lit the flame at the Opening Ceremony in Mexico City, was a moment hailed as groundbreaking.

Enriqueta Basilio becomes the first woman to light the Olympic Cauldron ©Getty Images
Enriqueta Basilio becomes the first woman to light the Olympic Cauldron ©Getty Images

More women have taken centre stage alongside the Flame since.

Christl Haas, an Olympic champion in Alpine skiing in 1964, lit one of two Cauldrons at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics and a few months later, teenager Sandra Henderson ignited the Cauldron at the Montreal Olympic Stadium alongside Stéphane Préfontaine.

It was the first time a boy and a girl had lit the Flame together and they had been chosen to represent the English and French linguistic communities of Canada.

Skater Sandra Dubravčić ran up the steps to light a Cauldron for Sarajevo in 1984. In 1988, 12-year-old schoolgirl Robyn Perry ignited the Flame for Calgary’s Winter Games. At the time, she was the youngest to do so.

The Seoul Organising Committee that summer was also well aware of the need for gender equality.

Middle-distance runner Im Chun-ae was then 19 years old and received the Flame in the stadium from legendary Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-chung. She ran through crowds of athletes before handing it to a trio of lighters representing heaven, earth and humanity.

The lighters included Son Mi-jung, a student of traditional dance from Seoul Arts School. She was described as “a cheerful girl from a respected family’’ by Seoul 1988 chief Park Seh-jik.

In 1996, the Torch Relay had a special handover celebration in Athens to mark the 100th anniversary of the Games.

Greek high jumper Niko Bakoyianni was chosen alongside windsurfer Nikos Kaklamanakis to light the celebratory Cauldron as part of the ceremony before Atlanta’s delegation received the Flame.

The first exchange in 2007 to Chinese swimmer Luo Xuejuan ©Philip Barker
The first exchange in 2007 to Chinese swimmer Luo Xuejuan ©Philip Barker

At the opening in Atlanta, swimmer Janet Evans was the penultimate Torchbearer. She handed the Flame to Muhammad Ali and later admitted it "was the defining moment in my career and a memory I will treasure forever, as much as any of the medals I won."

By 2000, there was a further innovation in Olympia at the very start of the journey. Although the first Torchbearer was still Greek and male, the second runner could now be a representative of the host city.

For Sydney, 11-year-old Sophie Gosper was chosen. Her father was an International Olympic Committee vice-president and the invitation caused some controversy, not least because 15-year-old Yianna Souleles, a Greek-Australian, had been flown over to Greece specifically for the role and was dropped at the last moment. Happily, Souleles was asked to carry the Flame in a later leg of the relay.

When the Flame arrived on Australian soil, it was taken to the ancient rock formation Uluru. Nova Peris, a member of the gold medal-winning 1996 Australian women’s hockey team, took the Flame in a moment of dual symbolism as both a woman and representative of the indigenous community.

It arrived in Sydney four months later for the grand opening. Tina Arena performed The Flame, a song specially written for the occasion.

Then came the final Torchbearers as the stadium announcement told spectators they were “celebrating 100 years of women’s participation in the Olympic Games.”

To a tumult of cheers, Raelene Boyle and Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff all carried the Flame before the Cauldron’s lighter emerged.

It was Cathy Freeman, who stepped through a waterfall to light the Flame as the six other Torchbearers watched intently.

For London 2012, British Olympic champions from previous years nominated the final Torch-lighters who were aspiring Olympians. These included young female athletes Katie Kirk, Desiree Henry and Adelle Tracey.

At Pyeongchang 2018, the final stages of the Torch Relay were dominated by women. Torchbearers from the combined Korean women’s ice hockey team carried the Flame together. Figure skater Yuna Kim then ignited the Cauldron itself.

It seems certain that Tokyo 2020 organisers will look for an equally unforgettable moment.

Unlike the first Tokyo Games in 1964, when an announcement was made months before, the identity of the final lighter is now kept a closely guarded secret, but the first Torchbearers on Japanese soil have been revealed.

Members of the Japanese side which won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011 and an Olympic silver medal at London 2012 will carry the Flame in Fukushima in a tribute to those who were victims of the tsunami in 2011.

“The fighting spirit the team displayed during the World Cup inspired many of the people struggling in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake,” organisers said.

The last time Japan hosted an Olympics was in 1998, when the Winter Games were held in Nagano. The final two Torchbearers on that occasion were both women wearing traditional costume.

Marathoner Hiromi Suzuki ran up the steps towards the Cauldron where she was greeted by figure skater Midori Ito. The music of One Fine Day from Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera Madame Butterfly resounded around the stadium as the fire burst into life.

Ito had been the first to carry the Flame on Japanese soil in 1998 - so don’t rule anything out this summer on what organisers hope will be another fine day.