Philip Barker ©ITG

The uncertainty over coronavirus has cast a cloud over the build-up to Tokyo 2020, and there is even a sense of precariousness over the lighting of the Olympic Flame, which is scheduled for Olympia on Thursday morning (March 12).

The performers in the ceremony have arrived and as it stands it is all systems go, although festivities which surround the event have been scaled down dramatically.

Over the years, Torch Relay organisers both in Greece and overseas have shown themselves able to respond at very short notice to problems.

It is hardly surprising they have the ability to adapt for even in normal conditions the sheer logistical challenge involved in transporting the Flame, runners and support personnel for days on end is mind-boggling.

What they are confronted with here is something rather different. The Hellenic Olympic Committee’s leadership will be gathering for an update on Monday and right up to the last minute, arrangements are subject to change.

In previous years, the big worry has been the weather.

The day before the last Olympic Flame Lighting Ceremony in October 2017, a flash storm transformed the ancient stadium where much of the ritual takes place into a muddy lake.

Organisers seriously considered moving the ceremony indoors. This had been done in 1968 when the Flame was handed over inside the museum.

Eventually the decision was taken to proceed outside. Apart from a brief shower on the day itself, the rain held off. Some might say that the weather gods heeded the invocation to Apollo. Even so, it was still proved too cloudy to light a flame from the rays of the sun.

The first torch runner, Apostolos Angelis, stepped forward to receive a torch ignited with a reserve flame, lit during rehearsals and conserved for just such an emergency in a miner’s safety lamp.

It was only the fifth time this had happened since this ceremony was first held in 1936 - not a bad ratio.

That said, there have been some fortunate escapes with the weather, particularly when the ceremony has been scheduled early in the year as it is for Tokyo.

A flame is lit in rehearsals ©Philip Barker
A flame is lit in rehearsals ©Philip Barker

In 2008, it began in March and news of a forecast storm reached organisers the day before and timings were brought forward by an hour. The Flame was successfully lit by the time the rain arrived.

It had been a similar story back 1996. The Centennial Olympic Torch Relay was another March lighting, and there were glorious blue skies on the day. It was a fortuitous piece of scheduling as 24 hours later, heavy rain descended on the heart of the Peloponnese as the Flame passed through the mountains. The runners needed all the hardy qualities associated with Sparta as they arrived in the town soaked to the skin.

Other problems more complex than the weather have also confronted the organisers in the 84 years of this ceremony.

In 1948, a relay from Olympia was organised for the first post-war Games to be held in London.

The initial route envisaged a Relay overland to Athens. Then a handover ceremony was to entrust the Flame to representatives of the organising committee.

Commander Bill Collins, a former Royal Navy officer, had been put in charge of the international arrangements. He was in Athens to supervise the final arrangements and ensure that the torches to be used on the Greek portion of the run were safely delivered.

The political situation in Greece at the time was very tense and fighting had broken out between the Government and rebel factions. Collins sent an urgent message.

"Civil disturbances may not permit the Greeks to carry the flame over the route that they at present propose, it is requested that HM ship may be available to pick up the Flame at any other port", he wrote.

As a result of the troubles, Olympic officials travelled to Olympia from Athens by sea to attend the ceremony.

The performers were to make their way by road. They included Aleka Katseli, who had been chosen to play the role of high priestess and light the Flame.

Twelve years before, she had taken part in the very first ceremony to light the Flame for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but 1948 she was unable to do so. The coach carrying her and other performers was forced to turn back at Corinth because of the fighting.

This meant that there was nobody to kindle the Flame in Olympia. Improvisation was needed, and quickly. The local community came up with the answer.

The daughter of a local teacher was chosen to play the role instead. Maria Aggelakopoulou, 17, suddenly found herself at the heart of a ceremony which even in those days attracted worldwide interest.

Her brother Angelos carried the Flame as a torchbearer and later he proudly recounted the episode.

“They chose my sister because she was tall, beautiful, she was educated and looked like an ancient Greek goddess.”

Rain flooded the ancient stadium in 2017 ©Philip Barker
Rain flooded the ancient stadium in 2017 ©Philip Barker

With few materials readily to hand, the villagers set to work making her a costume to wear on the big day.

There were still concerns that the event might be disrupted by military action. The rebel commander General Markos had made a radio broadcast inciting his followers to disrupt it.

By now, Collins had sent another cable spelling out the severity of the situation.

“Owing to difficulties, Flame will now be carried by runners Olympia to Pyrgos and Katakolo, thence by destroyer.”

Aggelakopoulou duly kindled the Flame and it was handed to a soldier Corporal Konstantinos Dimitrelis. He symbolically removed his military uniform before receiving the Flame and embarking on the first leg of the Relay.

Other Torchbearers took the flame to nearby Pyrgos.

There was a short ceremony in the town square before the flame continued to the port of Katakolo.

Waiting in port was a destroyer from the Hellenic Navy. As it carried the Flame out of harbour, it was escorted by a flotilla of smaller boats festooned in flags.

This was the first time the Flame had been carried across the sea.

In Corfu, great festivities greeted its arrival before it was taken aboard the Royal Navy ship HMS Whitesand Bay. 

It sailed away towards the Italian mainland, where it landed in Bari. After a journey overland through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium it crossed the English Channel and arrived at Wembley bang on time.

In the years that followed, the ceremony in Olympia continued to draw the crowds and the Flame proved a popular attraction on Greek soil.

In 1968, it set out for Mexico City in an ambitious journey, meant to evoke the spirit of the great explorer Christopher Columbus.

Yet when the Flame arrived on Mexican soil, the atmosphere was volatile. A student protest had ended in tragedy when Government forces opened fire. As a result, the passage of the Flame was given heavy security, particularly when the Torch visited the ancient temple of Teotihuacan.

“It was in itself an immensely dramatic scene but for me it was marred by the innumerable armed guards in full battle dress”, recalled future International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin.

In the 1970s, the organisers of the Montreal 1976 Games wanted something to capture the technological age. Instead of transporting the Flame by aircraft from Greece, it was transmitted to Canada by satellite using an electronic device which sent a series of pulses in the blinking of an eye.

The miner's lamp keeping a reserve flame safe ©Philip Barker
The miner's lamp keeping a reserve flame safe ©Philip Barker

The Relay which took the Flame to Moscow in 1980 was altogether more classical in its approach but 1984 there came a dispute which threatened the whole event.

The Games had been awarded to Los Angeles, where organisers adopted a scheme based on an idea by film producer David Wolper.

It allowed citizens to buy a Youth Legacy Kilometre for $3000, meaning anyone with enough  money could carry the Torch. The proceeds, organisers said, would fund community projects.

There were objections from the mayor of Olympia Spyros Fotinos and some members of the Hellenic Olympic Committee. The dispute grew bitter and at one stage, there existed the possibility that the Flame might not be lit at all.

A plan was hatched for some students to secretly light a flame from the sun’s rays in Olympia.

Their mission completed, a lantern with the flame was taken to IOC headquarters in Lausanne as a back-up. The whole thing was evidently done with the approval of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Eventually a compromise was reached. A Flame was lit in a very low-key ceremony on the appointed day and in the traditional place in Olympia.

It was kindled by the new high priestess Katerina Didaskalou.

“I don’t have good memories. However my participation was imperative. There was an effort to tarnish our heritage, which is to give to the world this international symbol of peace”, she said later.

The Flame was handed to Los Angeles 1984 representative Dick Sargent by Professor Nikolaos Nissiotis, flanked by his fellow Greek IOC member Nikos Filaretos and Italian Giorgio de Stefani.

A route to carry the Flame through the northern Peloponnese to Athens had been drawn up, but this was shelved and the Flame went directly to Athens by helicopter before heading onwards to New York.

The Flame was to have passed through the village of Tegea, where a plaque commemorates the genesis of the Torch Relay idea in 1934.

A Flame had burned in a tower above the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Stadium and also at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1932, but on neither occasion was it accompanied by a relay. In 1936, the grand journey from Olympia was inaugurated.

Those 1936 Games, organised under the Nazi regime, have been regarded ever since as the most political since the Games were revived.

Many also considered the Beijing Olympics of 2008 to be equally political. An international ‘’Journey of Harmony” was organised and the Flame travelled across the world.

Yet at the lighting ceremony in Olympia, there was an unprecedented demonstration.

A group from ‘’Reporters without Borders” unfurled a banner as Beijing 2008 head Liu Qi was speaking. They wished to draw attention to the lack of press freedom and human rights abuses in China. Others protested about the treatment of Tibet.

Although the protesters were hustled away and there was increased security throughout the Relay and at the handover in Athens, further protests took place outside the stadium.

When the Flame visited London, protesters attempted to extinguish it. There was a substantial alteration to the programme and some portions done by bus.

In Paris, protest flags flew from the Eiffel Tower there were so many disruptions that the day’s event was brought to an unceremonious early end. In San Francisco, details were kept secret until the very last minute and even then there were widespread protests. 

It was a similar story in other cities. In some, the Torch Relay was only conducted behind closed doors in sports stadiums.

The Beijing 2008 Torch Relay was met with protests ©Getty Images
The Beijing 2008 Torch Relay was met with protests ©Getty Images

It prompted the IOC to discourage future international relays.

The Lighting Ceremony in Olympia is usually a wonderfully optimistic event which heralds the coming of an Olympiad, when for a few magical hours a tiny village becomes the focus of the Olympic world.

A poem called Light of Olympia, the work of Greek writer Takis Doxas, perfectly captures the appeal.

"Tell them all to start for Olympia, thousands and thousands of youths to enter the open gate to compete."

It has been recited at every Lighting Ceremony since Tokyo 1964.

It is just part of a ceremony which begins amongst the columns of a ruined temple, a few metres from the venue where athletes from city states in Greece gathered in ancient times to compete against one another.

A company of 35 priestesses have been rehearsing their movements in the more modern Olympic velodrome in Athens over this last month. They are set to begin the ritual with a procession through what was known as the Temple of Hera. They will be accompanied by 12 young men known as the Kourai who evoke the spirit of the heralds who travelled from city to city to announce the Games of antiquity.

The leading role this year is taken by actress Xanthi Georgiou, who plays the role of the high priestess.

It falls to Georgiou to speak the prayer to Apollo which asks for “sacred silence” and a clear sky.

“Apollo, king of the sun and the idea of light,

Send your rays and light the sacred torch for the hospitable city of Tokyo.”

Georgiou has danced in this ceremony since 2008 and also kindled the Flame for the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games.

She is set to join a very exclusive club of those who have performed the role.

“It is a high honor and a great responsibility. to play the role of the High Priestess. The Olympic Flame, born from the Greek light sends messages of peace, friendship and cooperation between peoples over time", Georgiou said.

"In the 12 years I have been involved in the lighting and handover ceremonies, I have learned that the symbolism of the flame signifies respect for life and human existence."

Ceremony choreographer Artemis Ignatiou told insidethegames: “The high priestess must be an actress of some experience with a good and strong voice since we don’t use microphones. Most important she must have the maturity to bear the important role of the high priestess. In my opinion Xanthi has all the qualities.”

Georgiou is also responsible for handing the Flame to the first runner. For the first time this will be another woman. The choice of Rio 2016 pistol gold medallist Anna Korakaki guarantees another small page in the ledger of Olympic gender equality.