Philip Barker

If all goes to plan, they will be watching the horizon in Marseille a year from now for the first sight of the tall ship Belem as it brings the Olympic Flame. 

Paris 2024 organisers fervently hope that it  will signal a return to normality,

Yes, the Relay to the postponed Tokyo Olympics did eventually take place, but even though the itinerary was mostly completed, the absence of large crowds to line the route robbed it of much of its usual exuberance.

The same could be said for the Relay to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing which was one of the shortest on record. 

A brief Ceremony in Olympia, a Handover in Athens and then only a "Closed Loop" Relay to the three main Olympic centres in China itself.

The idea of the Torch Relay was introduced for the 1936 Olympics in Germany and attracted crowds on an overland journey which took it from Ancient Olympia to Athens, North through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and, finally, into Germany.

It was at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) session held in Berlin that Tokyo defeated Helsinki in the contest to host the Olympics for 1940.

Werner Klingeberg, a German official had been seconded to Tokyo’s Organising Committee.

He had worked closely with Carl Diem, Organising Secretary of the 1936 Games and an important figure in making the Torch Relay from Olympia to Berlin a reality.

Diem had "expressed  the hope that the sacred fire would never be missing from the Olympic Games of the future."

Tokyo was initially awarded the 1940 Olympics by the IOC ©Japanese Tourism Board
Tokyo was initially awarded the 1940 Olympics by the IOC ©Japanese Tourism Board

Tokyo’s Organising Committee kept detailed records of their activities which reveal, "The question of whether the Torch Relay would be held or not, due to the distance between Greece and Tokyo, was brought up several times before the Organising Committee."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) signalled its approval so "tentative plans had been made."

Diem himself consulted Sven Hedin, a Swedish geographer who had made a number of expeditions to Asia.

"Dr. Diem asked me some time in the autumn of 1936 whether it would be possible to organise a system of relays of horsemen to carry the sacred Flame right across Asia," Hedin wrote.

"What a magnificent and inspiring thought!" 

At a lecture in November 1936, Hedin enthused about a possible route.

"There  is  a  choice  of  three  main  routes all leading  from West to East right across  Asia," Hedin suggested.  

A Northern journey was dismissed because it meant crossing the Soviet Union which had so far not embraced the Olympic Movement.

Hedin also discounted the classic route along the "Silk Road".

"The  Imperial  highway of the Chinese may be dismissed as impracticable, owing to the great  expanses of waterless deserts, along which there is no accommodation for relays of riders and  horses," Hedin explained.

A Southern route however, "offered no invincible obstacles."

The proposed route would depart from Olympia, head through Northern Greece into Turkey, then  Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, through Burma, China and into Japan.

"In  this  case, it is merely a question of mutual goodwill and a sympathetic understanding with all the Governments of the various countries traversed by the mounted couriers," Hedin added.

It was a route that Hedin had taken in 1890 on one of his expeditions.

"I feel a great  thrill  myself in the thought that the Olympian flame will follow along  the route by which I travelled myself, for it was nearly half-a-century ago and continued for days and nights on end,” Hedin admitted.

"With feelings of extraordinary enthusiasm and reverence, they will gaze on the flickering Flame which has come all the way from Olympia and which is now burning in the land of the rising sun."

"The proposed journey of horsemen carrying  the sacred Flame, is a gesture in  the name of peace and international harmony," Hedin continued.

"One can visualise in one’s fancy, the long journey through the Southern regions of the continent, as a string of pearls or a chain of gleaming fire."

Yet in July 1937, the Japanese Government embarked on an aggressive invasion of China which ultimately put paid to any prospect of the 1940 Olympics taking place in Tokyo.

This was euphemistically described in the official Tokyo Olympic Report as the "China Incident."

The demands of war meant that Japanese organisers were obliged to give back the Olympics to the IOC in 1938.

"If the proposed Torch relay had materialised, much would have been gained in diffusing the Olympic spirit in the districts where the knowledge of the Olympic Movement is as yet very scanty," Tokyo’s Olympic officials reflected.

At an IOC Executive Commission held in Brussels, it was formally confirmed that the 1940 Games would be re-allocated to Helsinki. 

The Finns set about preparations with great enthusiasm and construction of the Olympic Stadium was completed in 1938, although later modifications were made.

Klingeberg now made his way to Finland to join Helsinki's Olympic Organisers.

In June 1939, the Finnish delegates travelled to London in 1939 to present their progress report to the IOC.

During the meeting, IOC President Comte Henri Baillet Latour "proposed  the  consideration of possibilities for organising the Torch Relay."

Helsinki Organising Committee President Jukka Rangell, a recently elected member of the IOC "recognised the deep significance of such an event and expressed his approval on the condition that adequate funds were available to carry it out."

Rangell, Angelo Bolanachi of Greece and Diem were to undertake the preparations. 

"The Organising Committee appreciated the idealistic and propaganda value of the Torch Relay especially in the countries it was to visit," Helsinki Organising Committee documents revealed.

It was planned that Torches used for the Relay in 1940 would be similar to those employed for the 1936 Olympics ©ITG
It was planned that Torches used for the Relay in 1940 would be similar to those employed for the 1936 Olympics ©ITG

Although the Relay was now to carry the Torch only from Greece to Northern Europe, it was still an ambitious and extensive undertaking.

"The National Olympic Committees of the countries on the route are asked to lend their collaboration to complete this task to serve the promotion of the Olympic ideal," the request said.

The route was to pass through 10 nations, a total distance of 6,832 Kilometres.

Diem had by now established an Olympic Institute in Germany which was charged with coordinating arrangements from Olympia as far as Denmark.

Thereafter, responsibility for the Relay would pass to the Helsinki Organising Committee.

It was planned that the torches used would be similar to those employed for the Relay to Berlin in 1936.

Each was to burn for a maximum of 10 minutes.

The Lighting Ceremony was set to take place on June 28 in 1940 at 2.30pm and the arrival in Finland was scheduled for July 17, where it was to spend three days before the Opening Ceremony.

The organisers invited each National Olympic Committee to "celebrate" the passage of the Olympic Flame, either in a town square or stadium with "a festival or celebration to promote the Olympic Ideal and the international sports movement."

The Flame was to burn in a special altar at these events.

Helsinki Organisers hoped that the Olympic Flame would also burn in the previous host city of Berlin during the 1940 Games ©Getty Images
Helsinki Organisers hoped that the Olympic Flame would also burn in the previous host city of Berlin during the 1940 Games ©Getty Images

The itinerary passed through the 1896 host city Athens, Stockholm, where the 1912 Games, had taken place and the most recent Olympic city of Berlin.

The Organising Committee asked for IOC and the National Olympic Committees for, "A general agreement that Flame should be left to burn for the entire duration of the Helsinki Games at the place where it had burned during the Games organised in their countries."

A different location would have had to be found in Athens and Stockholm as there had not been an Olympic Flame at either Games.

Yet within a few weeks of the plans being laid, a German invasion of Poland began the Second World War, and shortly after, Finland found herself under attack from Stalin's Soviet army.

The Helsinki Games did not take place and the Olympics scheduled for 1944 also proved impossible.

The idea of an Olympic Torch endured, and the end of the war made it possible for the Olympics to be held once more.

In 1948, a Relay of the Flame from Olympia to London was organised.

"An event based on such antiquarian sham and portentous symbolism is out of keeping with the spirit and problems of the post war world and can contribute little to its pleasure," the Evening Standard forecast.

In fact, although the Relay travelled through the night, crowds came out in great numbers to see the Flame pass, even in the small hours.

It had travelled across the sea for first time and also visited France en route to London, though that sojourn was brief indeed by comparison with the epic journey set to begin in 12 months time.

The Flame for Paris 2024 is scheduled to arrive in Marseille on May 8 next year.