Philip Barker

The Olympic Torch Relay is not scheduled to begin its domestic passage from Fukushima until March 25 next year but the Olympic Flame is set to begin a separate journey across Japan in a safety lantern this weekend.

It has been kept alight since it was lit in Ancient Olympia in March since when Olympic organisers have been faced with the challenge of reorganisation of the Games and in a wider sense, keeping the Olympic Flame burning.

It will be displayed in a safety lamp similar to that first used to transport the Flame by air for the 1952 Helsinki Games. This had been presented to organising chief Erik Von Frenckell by representatives of the Saar Olympic Committee. Helsinki organisers described it as "a beautiful miner's safety lamp in which the Flame could be carried in an airplane."

Ever since, a similar container has accompanied the Torch to carry the reserve Flame.  

The Relay was introduced in 1936 for the Berlin Games, but although no organisers have faced quite the same problems as Tokyo 2020, there have often been other obstacles to overcome.

In that first Relay, runners in Greece were warned about the dangers posed by local bandits and also political activists who wished to seize and extinguish the Flame.

German radio reporters accompanied the runners in a mobile van but their recordings were made on wax discs which were affected by the heat.

The first Olympic Games following the Second World War were held in 1948. A Relay was organised to bring the Games from Olympia to London.

In the days before the Flame was to be lit, chief organiser Bill Collins, a retired Royal Navy officer, arrived to find Greece in the midst of a civil war and sent a message to London.

"Owing to the fact that civil disturbances may not permit the Greeks to carry the Flame over the roads which they at present propose, it is requested that His Majesty’s ship concerned may be available to pick up the Flame at any other port requested. I will keep in closest touch, so that any last minute alterations may be transmitted."

It even became impossible for the designated Priestess to travel from Athens to light the Flame so a local girl, Maria Aggelakopoulou was asked to play the part.

The Flame itself was taken to the nearby port of Katakolon before boarding a Greek navy ship to Corfu.

The Olympic Flame is set to begin a journey across Japan in a safety lantern this weekend ©Getty Images
The Olympic Flame is set to begin a journey across Japan in a safety lantern this weekend ©Getty Images

From there, it was relayed to the Italian mainland by HMS Whitesand Bay. Lieutenant Commander Leonard Frederick Clark, recalled: "A large unmarked case arrived containing a burner, joining goo, various bits and pieces, but no instructions.

"To make the Flame look more dignified my staff made an altar out of an inverted yardarm group light reflector with burner pipes fitted and all polished. The passage was heavy going and I did worry the Flame might go out."

As it made its way across Europe, runners also discovered that it was also prone to go out on land.

When it finally reached Calais, it was carried across the channel by HMS Bicester. Chief Petty Officer Herbert Barnes, known as "Chiefy" brought it ashore at Dover less than 24 hours before the Opening Ceremony, only for the Flame to go out. "It was like a spring-loaded firework," said Barnes.

With organisers on hand to relight it each time, the Flame successfully reached Wembley in time for the opening.

The summer Flame has always been lit at Olympia but for the Winter Olympics, the Torch Relay was introduced in 1952 when a Flame was kindled in the Norwegian village of Morgedal.

Organisers of the 1960 Squaw Valley Games Winter Olympics proudly announced that their Flame would be lit in Olympia. This would have been a first, except no-one thought to ask the Hellenic Olympic Committee. When they were eventually alerted, time was too short and the Flame was lit in Norway again.

The flames from rehearsals are always retained, just in case it proves impossible to ignite the bowl directly from the rays of the sun. It was necessary to use the "reserve" in relays for Melbourne 1956 and Sydney 2000.

In 2017, heavy storms turned the ancient stadium into a lake and organisers seriously considered holding the lighting ceremony for Pyeongchang indoors. In the end, they kept faith with the great outdoors and were rewarded when the rains held off.

A decade before, the lighting Ceremony for Beijing 2008 was moved forward because of impending heavy rain, but a storm of a different kind loomed.

There were protests against Chinese policy in Tibet in both Olympia and Athens.

The Flame then headed to the host city of Beijing before embarking on what was described as a "Journey of Harmony," visiting cities across the world.

Protests took place on the route of the Torch Relay prior to the Beijing 2008 Olympics ©Getty Images
Protests took place on the route of the Torch Relay prior to the Beijing 2008 Olympics ©Getty Images

Trouble followed in its wake.

In London, there were at least 35 arrests and organisers were constantly forced to change the route.

In Paris the Relay was to have covered 27 kilometres. It was severely interrupted and eventually curtailed. Some 28 arrests were made.

In San Francisco, the original 10 kilometre route was summarily cancelled. Local organisers refused even to release details of the new itinerary and runners were confined to a very restricted area.

In Canberra, there were violent clashes and in Islamabad, Pakistan’s 1976 hockey bronze medallist Samiullah Khan was among those to carry the Flame behind closed doors in a stadium.

"It's pitiful for the Torch Relay going on in the closed stadium, but security is the first thing to consider for everyone."

In the months which followed Beijing, the International Olympic Committee made it clear there would be no further global relays.

The only other such event had been in 2004.

It was clear that a Relay from Olympia to Athens would not have had the ‘X’ factor required for the return of the Games to their spiritual home and an expansive international Relay took shape. At the start, it arrived at the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, the first time that an Olympic Flame had arrived in the host city before the main part of the Relay.

The Athens 2004 Flame visited previous host cities and other symbolic sites including the Olympic capital in Lausanne before returning to Greek soil.

There had been speculation that sprinter Kostas Kenteris, 200m gold medallist at the Sydney 2000 Games, would light the final Cauldron at the Opening Ceremony but fate took a hand. He surrendered his Olympic accreditation the day before the Ceremony after a remarkable sequence of events following a missed doping test which ended in a motorcycle crash.

Although the media guide for the Opening Ceremony indicated that there would be seven runners in the stadium, only six appeared and 1996 windsurfing champion Nikos Kaklamanakis lit the Cauldron.

Anna Korakaki became the first woman to carry the Olympic Torch inside the Olympic Stadium earlier this year ©Getty Images
Anna Korakaki became the first woman to carry the Olympic Torch inside the Olympic Stadium earlier this year ©Getty Images

This fuelled speculation that the original choice had been Kenteris, although ceremony producers denied there had been a late switch at their media conference in the early hours following the event.

Back in March, Tokyo 2020 insisted their Games would go ahead as in any normal year. Japanese groups had been invited to the Relay and handover festivities.

The first stage in the scale back came when the archaeological site in Olympia was closed to visitors.

It was then announced that the local schools groups would not take part.

On the day itself, only a small group saw Anna Korakaki become the first woman to receive the Olympic Flame inside the ancient stadium.

As usual, the village of Olympia turned out in force to see the Flame cavalcade pass through. They were among the lucky ones.

The mayor of Sparta had invited Gerard Butler, star of the film “300”  to carry the Flame. It tells the story of the heroic resistance of the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae 2500 years ago.

Crowds turned out in such numbers that the Hellenic Olympic Committee soon decided to suspend the Relay programme on Greek soil.

The handover Ceremony was to have been the highlight of the week. A delegation led by Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori and triple Olympic champions Tadahiro Nomura and Saori Yoshida were to have flown to Athens. Instead they remained in Japan.

Instead Naoko Imoto, UNICEF education officer in Athens was drafted in to collect the lantern.

"When I received the call I was very surprised and felt this could not be true. The Olympic Flame represents a lot to me and to many people despite the difficulties we are facing right now with the coronavirus," said Imoto, a member of the Japanese swimming team at the 1996 Olympics.

When the Flame touched down in Japan, interest was so great that it was necessary to remove the Flame from display.

Now the plan is to exhibit the lamp at 73 municipalities in 14 prefectures in a tour expected to last until March 16 2021.

By which time, they hope that the way will be clear for the Torch Relay itself to begin in Fukushima.