Olympic Flame: An Enduring Legacy
In a ceremony reminiscent of ancient Greek theater, priestesses in their pleated robes swayed to music while priests performed an ancient war dance to the beating of drums. Then the high priestess raised her arms to invoke Apollo, the Sun God before kneeling in front of a concave mirror. And just as her predecessors had done over 2,000 years ago, she lit a torch from the sun's rays.
This ritual at the ancient ruins of Olympia signals the start of the Olympic games, held every four years. For the many Greeks attending the torch-lighting ceremony, it was an emotional moment. A poignant reminder of the greatness of their ancient civilization, especially at a time when Greece is going through one of its worst political and economic crisis.
The flame and a fresh olive branch were handed by the high priestess to the first torchbearer, Spyros Gianniotis, an English-born Greek swimmer. From there, the torch traveled through 40 towns in Greece, carried by athletes and prominent people, before arriving in Britain aboard a flight. It was received by British soccer-star David Beckham and the Olympic flame is now on a 8,000-mile journey through English and Irish cities, countryside and historic sites.
The First Olympics
The first written records of the Olympics are from 776 B.C in ancient Greece which show the games closely linked to a religious festival in honor of Zeus. Olympia, a religious and political center, was also the site of temples dedicated to Zeus and his wife, Hera. The games were held every four years and the winner awarded an olive wreath. However, by 393 AD with the conquest of Greece, Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, ordered the games stopped as he considered it a pagan festival.
And so it was until the mid-1800s, when a Frenchman by the name of Pierre de Coubertin proposed reviving the games. Coubertin believed the French who had been routed in the Franco-Prussian war, lacked sports and physical activity. After crusading for four years, the first Olympics were held in Athens in 1896.
A surprising beginning!
Contrary to what we might think, the custom of torchbearers running with a flame was not practiced by the ancient Greeks nor was it a part of the first Olympics. It had a surprising origin in Nazi Germany! Carl Diem, the organizer behind the 1936 Berlin Olympics envisioned 3,000 runners transporting the flame from its cradle in ancient Greece to Berlin, Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1932, he wanted to cancel the games. However, Diem convinced Hitler that the Olympic Games and the torch relay would be a proud display of Nazi Germany's power. And so, the show went on!
The games were put on hold after 1936 until the end of World War II. London hosted the 1948 Olympics, and chose to embrace the torch-relay tradition. The Greek corporal who was the first torchbearer for Nazi Germany, carried the torch again in 1948 -- this time as a gesture of peace. Now, sixty decades later, London will host the Olympics once more, reminding us that despite all divisions, we are all still one human race.