Philip Barker ©ITG

Later this week, Paris 2024 organisers are set to reveal the details of the domestic journey of the Olympic Flame after it arrives on French soil at the port of Marseille in May next year.

It is 75 years this summer since an Olympic Flame was first taken across France.

The Games that year were to be held in London, and the 1948 Relay was much shorter than that planned for Paris, yet the Torchbearers were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm wherever they appeared.

For most of its journey, the Flame travelled overland across the European mainland and arrived in France with less than a week to go until the Games were due to start.

The Flame passed through Besançon, Nancy and Metz.

Amongst those to carry it was Daniel Rebiffé who had been a talented athlete serving with the Republican Guard, where his talent as a runner had been spotted.

He had been invited to carry the Torch by the French Athletics Federation.

"In the middle of the night, there were people waiting for us," Rebiffé told La Nouvelle Republicaine many years later.

"It's very moving when you arrive and everyone applauds you, everywhere we went, even in the small villages, there were people, there was even a fireworks display."

The itinerary for the Flame took it onwards to Luxembourg and Belgium before it returned to French soil.

German athletes had been excluded from taking part in the 1948 Olympics along with the Japanese.

The Relay did not cross into Germany.

As the Flame entered Calais, a motorcycle escort flanked Gilbert Chretien, a local athlete who worked for Courtaulds at their Calais plant.

He had received the Flame at Virval and carried it to Calais Town Hall.

The square had been closed off for the arrival of the Torch and proceedings were put back from their original start time.

"To allow our co-citizens who are still at work until 6:00 pm to be present for this grand ceremony," a notice in a local newspaper said.

In the square, members of the town's musical societies and athletics clubs watched another athlete, Jean Jovenaux of the Hellemes Club, take the Flame towards the port where the crew of the HMS Bicester were waiting to welcome it for the passage across the Channel to Dover.

On board was Commodore Douglas Neame, a distinguished sailor who had competed in the 110 metres hurdles at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

On the other side of the Channel, a huge crowd gathered to await the ship.

The man chosen to bring the Torch down the gangplank in Dover was chief petty officer Herbert Barnes, a Royal Navy athletics champion.

"We took the thing on board from the French and the bloody thing went out three minutes after it had arrived," Barnes recalled later.

"It kept going out and then rekindling itself, it was like a spring loaded firework."

Barnes ran along the Prince of Wales pier into Dover.

A crowd estimated to be 50,000 watched as he ran past.

Eventually, Barnes passed it to Dover Mayor Arthur Goodfellow.

There was a message from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Sigfrid Edstrom.

Then the Flame was handed to Sidney Doble, butchery manager of the Union Street Cooperative Store and a member of the co-operative society athletic section.

"I’m training on the smell of steakes and doing a bit of running and cycling in the evenings," Doble had told reporters as he prepared for his moment in the spotlight.

In fact, Doble also had a starring role at the beginning of the official film of the 1948 Olympics when he was shown carrying it with the famous white cliffs of Dover in the background.

By the time the Relay reached Maidstone, it was 2:30 am but there was still a crowd of some 5,000.

"Some had brought out chairs and beds to the roadside and many were in dressing gowns," local reports said.

When the sun came up, the Torch was still on schedule.

At 5:30 am, it was carried by Dick Choat, a Blackheath teammate of Sidney Wooderson, European 1500m gold medallist in 1938 and 5000m champion in 1946.

The club had been asked to supply a runner.

"I thought only one person was obvious, but Sidney was a very retiring man and absolutely amazingly, he said he wouldn’t do it," Choat said later.

Choat therefore ran with the Flame on behalf of Blackheath from the Kent village of Sundridge to Brasted where he handed it to Reuben Mehew of Cambridge Athletics Club.

Later on, it was carried by Austin Playfoot outside the Horse and Groom in Merrow near Guildford.

In 2012, Playfoot helped re-light the London cauldron when it was moved to its position adjacent to the athletics track in the stadium,

The 2012 cauldron was re-lit by Austin Playfoot, a Torchbearer in 1948 after it had been re-positioned in the stadium after the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
The 2012 cauldron was re-lit by Austin Playfoot, a Torchbearer in 1948 after it had been re-positioned in the stadium after the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

Despite huge crowds, the Relay was actually arrived early in Uxbridge before the final journey to Wembley.

It was greeted by athletes and well wishers as it passed the Royal Air Force camp which was being used at the Athletes' Village.

Finally, it was lit at Wembley by John Mark, a medical student from Cambridge University. 

"While I was waiting, I was nervous but as soon as I entered the stadium, I felt grand, I didn’t even feel hot," Mark said later.

Watching in the crowd was Government Minister Philip Noel-Baker, an Olympic medallist himself and later a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Tall and handsome like a young Greek god, he held the torch aloft to salute the concourse and then ran in perfect rhythm around the track," Noel Baker wrote.

Organising Committee President Lord Burghley had told the press that the final runner would be "tall, blond and well known in London".

As a result, it had been rumoured in the international press that Prince Philip was to be the final Torchbearer. 

This was untrue although the Prince was the starter of the cycling road race in Windsor Great Park.

Some, including Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) expressed disappointment that the choice had not fallen on Wooderson. 

The lighting of the Flame is always a sublime moment which makes up for all the obstacles faced by the organisers.

The Tokyo Olympic Flame was kept on the waterfront for the duration of the Games ©ITG
The Tokyo Olympic Flame was kept on the waterfront for the duration of the Games ©ITG

In the months ahead, the Paris 2024 Torch Relay organisers will almost certainly be confronted with a wider range of problems.

It was the same for retired Royal Navy officer Bill Collins who had been put in charge of the 1948 Relay. 

To start with, there was opposition in the media.

In 1947, Evening Standard had published an editorial asking for the cancellation, not just of the Torch Relay, but the Games itself.

"British people are viewing the preparations for the Games with no enthusiasm and some distaste," the newspaper said.

"The British public concludes that 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."

There were many who remembered that the first Torch Relay had been conducted for the 1936 Games in Berlin and had decided that the ritual was tainted by association with Nazi Germany.

Collins later told a colleague: "Those pressmen can be the very deuce when the wrong chap reads what they say."

The Torch had been designed by Ralph Lavers and many were manufactured in West London at Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) and other companies, including Wessex Aircraft engineers.

A quantity was set aside to be used in Greece but actually transporting them was another matter.

"The Home Office has classified the Torches as manufactured fireworks," Collins wrote to a colleague in a memorandum that scarcely disguised his irritation.

Each Torch was to be carried in a "hermetically sealed tin". 

Collins had also requested that a Royal Navy ship be used to carry the Flame from Greece to Italy and also across the Channel.

"The Organising Committee hopes that in this way the Royal Navy will be playing a part in the Olympic Festival."

The response was hardly brimming with enthusiasm.

"If one of His Majesties ships were in the ordinary course of events making the sea passage at the desired time, there would be no Admiralty objection but to arrange a journey specially for this purpose would be quite out of the question at this time of financial stringencies," the communique said.

In a final barb, the bureaucrats suggested "there seems no reason why the cross channel steamer should not be used" to transport the Flame across the Channel.

Collins responded with a veiled threat to approach the French Navy.

This apparently did the trick as the mandarins in Whitehall suddenly had a change of heart.

"There are reasons in favour of extending our hospitality to the sentimental symbols of the organisation," the civil servants conceded.

A playing card depicts the arrival of the Olympic Flame at Wembley carried by "tall and blonde" Cambridge University student John Mark ©ITG
A playing card depicts the arrival of the Olympic Flame at Wembley carried by "tall and blonde" Cambridge University student John Mark ©ITG 

As Collins travelled to the Mediterranean to make his final preparations, the very start of the Relay seemed in jeopardy from civil strife in Greece.

"I will keep in the closest touch so that any last minute alterations may be transmitted," Collins told London in a coded message.

In Greece, the fighting worsened and a rebel warlord sent out orders that the Flame was to be stopped.

The conflict meant that overland travel from Athens to Olympia was impossible. 

The actress nominated to play the role of High Priestess was thus stranded in the capital.

Instead a local girl, Maria Aggelakopoulou, was hurriedly pressed into service to light the Flame from the rays of the sun.

"Owing to difficulties of Olympia to Corinth route, Flame will now be carried by runners Olympia to Pyrgos and Katakalon and thence by destroyer," Collins advised London by cable.

In 1948, the Flame was taken aboard a Greek ship waiting to take it to Corfu.

It was the first time that the Flame had travelled by sea.

From Corfu,  HMS Whitesand Bay continued the journey.

"A large unmarked case, arrived on board with various bits and pieces and joining 'goo' but no instructions," Lieutenant Commander Leonard Clark, officer in charge of the Flame said.

"To make the Flame look more dignified, my staff made an altar out of an inverted yard arm light reflector."

It arrived unscathed in Bari and the Flame was carried night and day across Italy before it crossed the Swiss border ahead of schedule.

When it reached Lausanne, it passed the Mon Repos headquarters of the IOC where Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s widow Marie watched it pass.

Then it proceeded to France.

So far only a few details have emerged about what is planned for Paris 2024. 

We do know that as in 1948, the Flame will be carried by sea.

This time the arrival in Marseille will be on the tall ship Belem.

A sailing ship was first used in 1960 to transport the Flame from Greece to Rome.

"It was decided to select an itinerary which coincided with and bore reference to the two apexes of classical civilisation," Rome 1960 organisers said.

The Flame was therefore carried by the training ship Amerigo Vespucci and sailed to Syracuse, an ancient Greek settlement.

The ancient maritime tradition was also invoked in 1988 when a trireme built to resemble the craft of antiquity carried the Flame towards Athens before it departed for South Korea.

Then in 1992, a sunlit evening at Empuries, an ancient settlement on the Northern Spanish coast, it arrived by water to begin the journey to Barcelona.

The Flame has found a permanent home on the waterfront at the last two Olympic celebrations.

At the Rio 2016 Games, it was lit in the Maracana but then taken to the district of Candelaria where a similar cauldron was ignited by Brazilian Jorge Alberto Oliveira Gomes, an aspiring athlete from the favelas.

Since Rio 2016, the Flame has burned at a location away from the Olympic stadium for the duration of the Games ©Getty Images
Since Rio 2016, the Flame has burned at a location away from the Olympic stadium for the duration of the Games ©Getty Images

In 2021, tennis star Naomi Osaka was the final torch bearer at the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo.

Then in the small hours of the morning, the Flame was again discreetly transferred.

Rio 2016 badminton women's doubles gold medallist Ayaka Takahashi ignited the almost identical bowl at the Ariake Yume-no-Ohashi Bridge on the waterfront.

There is already feverish speculation on the final location of the cauldron in Paris.

Designer Mathieu Lehanneur has been commissioned to create it and will also be responsible for the Olympic Torches.

"What a joy to be part of this adventure and what a responsibility to contribute to the history of the Games in this way!" Lehanneur said. 

"Partnering with Paris 2024 to design the torches and cauldrons means giving a visible form to a set of values."

Some 11,000 Torchbearers are expected to participate in the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Relays.

"To identify the Torchbearers, in every corner of France, Paris 2024 will mobilise all those involved in its ecosystem," Paris 2024 has explained.

They have already revealed that there will be "Team Relays celebrating the values of community and sharing".

Some 69 such relays are planned with many participants nominated by sports organisations.

"The aim is to highlight the sports movement as a whole and to bring to life the values of sharing, which are at the heart of sport."

Organisers claim it is "on a scale never seen for the Games" although at some Games in the past, it was customary to have teams of escort runners to accompany the Flamebearer.

What will be truly welcome is the return of the crowds.

The Relay to Tokyo was robbed of much of its exuberance by the strict precautions against COVID-19.

The Beijing 2022 Relay was even more severely restricted because of a strict "closed loop system".

Very few ordinary people were able to see the Flame at all.