Philip Barker

Precautions against the coronavirus have prompted a reduction in the the usual celebrations, but as things stand, organisers insist that Rio 2016 shooting champion Anna Korakaki will receive the first Olympic Torch to start the Relay to Tokyo next Thursday.

Her image is set to be beamed around the world as she becomes the first woman to receive the Olympic Flame inside the ancient stadium in Olympia.

She joins a roll of honour which has previously been exclusively male.

It began with a local man called Kostas Kondylis.

He was the first torchbearer in the first Torch Relay, organised to carry the Flame to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

There is a street in Olympia which bears his name.

Kondylis studied law and later made his career in the Diplomatic Service.

Yet when it came to portraying the lighting of the Flame for the official film, he was nowhere to be seen.

The film had been entrusted to the eminent German film director Leni Riefenstahl.

She was accustomed to grandiose ceremonies because she had previously directed films about the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg.

Her ideas were very clear and they did not include Kondylis.

She screen tested Jürgen Ascherfeld, a young official who had been sent to the Flame lighting as a representative of the Berlin Organising Committee.

His image was even reproduced in some magazines as the bearer of the first Torch.

Then Riefenstahl came across a dark haired teenager called Anatol Dobriansky. 

Originally from Odessa, he had moved to Greece with his parents and eventually settled in Pyrgos, a town some 18km from Olympia.

Anna Korakaki will receive the first Olympic Torch at the start of next week's Torch Relay ©Getty Images
Anna Korakaki will receive the first Olympic Torch at the start of next week's Torch Relay ©Getty Images

It is said that Riefenstahl saw him at the roadside and immediately offered him a part in her film.

Greek newspapers spoke of “Riefenstahl’s protege, the torchbearer of Pyrgos who will become a UFA star.”

Some of the filming was conducted amongst the archaeological ruins at Delphi which offered a dramatic backdrop.

Other sequences, including the dancing of the young maidens and the actual lighting of the Flame were filmed on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania.

The final sequence was accompanied by a sweeping score from German composer Herbert Windt.

It was certainly a stunning piece of cinema.

So much for the fantasy, what of the real thing?

A route to take the flame from Olympia to Berlin was arranged, a distance of 3069 kilometres.

The Krupps steelworks were commissioned to manufacture the torches.

Each was inscribed with a message of gratitude to the bearer.

In the weeks leading up to the Ceremony, Olympia was a hive of activity with building and improvement works taking place. 

Outside the railway station, the square was renovated to offer a good first impression to visitors arriving from Athens.

Everything was done “to give the whole area of Olympia a dignified appearance in the eyes of foreign visitors.”

The Hellenic Olympic Committee sent out a memorandum to those working on the relay.

It read: “We cannot make the smallest mistake.

"We must foresee every last detail, even the improbable and the unforeseen.

"The light must proceed, and proceed on time, no matter what sacrifices have to be made.”

One problem they did envisage was “the danger of roaming sheepdogs.”

Forest and land wardens along the route were put on standby.

The authorities also warned of bandits and political insurgents who threatened to disrupt the relay.

The Olympic Torch Relay is an important event in the lead up to any summer or winter Olympic Games ©Getty Images
The Olympic Torch Relay is an important event in the lead up to any summer or winter Olympic Games ©Getty Images

On the day newspapers estimated that some 10,000 were in Olympia for the festivities.

Those from local villages had set out at daybreak and spectators found every possible vantage point on the hillside at Mount Kronos and on the river banks close to the ancient site.

At 10.45am local time, children from local schools gathered at a square in front of the local museum. 

Led by musicians, they formed a procession to the site of the Ceremony.

A large crowd had gathered, so it was perhaps possible to see why the reality of the day’s events did not fit RIefenstahl’s artistic and stylised presentation.

The Ceremony itself was much shorter and simpler than today.

The High Priestess was Koula Pratsika, considered a pioneer of classical dance in Greece who led a procession through the ruins. 

She was accompanied by a group of young priestesses wearing short tunics. 

They crowded around as she stooped to light the first Torch.

This was done using a parabolic bowl to ignite a Flame from the rays of the sun and and the same method has been used ever since.

Alongside her was Aleka Katseli who would perform the role of High Priestess and light the Flame for Tokyo in 1964.

Amongst the youngest of the group was Maria Horss another dance pupil who had been encouraged to travel to Olympia.

Many years later, she too would enjoy a career in the Greek theatre and in 1964 she would be asked to choreograph the Flame lighting ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics, renewing a connection with Katseli and with the ceremony that would endure to the end of her life.

The priestesses were the only women involved with the Flame in 1936 as the Torch bearers were exclusively male.

“Youth of the world I call you to attention,” said Government Minister Constantine Georgakopolous.

“Three thousand of you will run in a Torch race night and day to transfer this very fire through the Greek mountains and vales to the banks of the River Spree lined with towering oak trees.

Follow its fiery course with the utmost attention.”

As International Olympic Committee President in the formative years of the organisation Baron Pierre de Coubertin had been an admirer of the Olympic Games of antiquity. 

He had visited Olympia a decade before but in 1936 he was unable to make the journey.

Instead, he sent a message to greet the participants which read: “Athletes who in your eager hands will carry the Flame from Olympia to Berlin, I wish to address the first word to you, to say in what spirit my thoughts accompany you and the significance I attach to your endeavour.”

After the messages were read, newspapers described how “the first runner Kondylis took the Olympic oath and then lit a Torch from the altar. 

"He then departed escorted by an escort of honour.”

The words of de Coubertin were sealed in a casket which runners also carried towards Berlin.

There was no standardised uniform for the bearers and many ran bare chested.

Some locals also took part wearing the ‘fustanella’, the traditional pleated skirt worn in the regions.

The caravan which followed the Flame included film crews and a team from German radio who attempted regular broadcasts.

They were accompanied by Werner Klingenberg, an official from the Berlin 1936 Organising Committee. 

He was later seconded to Tokyo as an adviser to the Japanese organisers of the ill fated 1940 Tokyo Olympics which never took place.

Day and night crowds turned out to watch the runners pass.

“Only the sick stayed at home” said the Athenian newspapers.

A Swedish company even produced a special commemorative matchbox depicting the Torch bearer - which was sold widely in Greece.

It says much for their quality that the matches still strike first time, 84 years after their manufacture.

The relay to Berlin was considered a huge success.

Carried exclusively on foot, it invoked the spirit of heralds announcing that the Games were imminent.

Those 1936 Games were indelibly associated with the Nazis and the Swastika.

Even so, every host city since has been captivated by the Torch Relay and as the pioneers hoped, it has become the best known symbol of the Games.