The Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, are almost here. As is tradition, the Olympic flame was ignited in the run-up to the occasion. But what exactly is the Olympic flame, and why is it so symbolic of the Olympic movement?
Click through and be enlightened as to why fire plays such an important role in the Olympic Games.
The Ancient Olympic Games
The inaugural Ancient Olympic Games is traditionally dated back to 776 BCE and the town of Olympia. Pictured is an artist’s impression of Olympia, Greece, at the time of the Games.
The games were held every four years, or Olympiad, in honor of Zeus, the Greek god of sky and thunder.
The ancient Greeks conferred upon their games a mythological status, where fire had divine connotations. It’s said that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity, and sacred fires were kept burning at many ancient Greek sanctuaries.
At Olympia during the Games, sacred fires illuminated the temple of Zeus and that of his wife Hera, the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth.
Temple of Hera
The Temple of Hera at Olympia dates back to approximately 590 BCE. The original structure was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the 4th century CE. Today, the modern Olympic flame is ignited at a spot near the temple’s ruined altar.
Banned and revived
The Ancient Games were banned in 394 CE by Theodosius I as an unwanted pagan festival. The Olympic Games were eventually revived in 1859 and took place at the restored Panathenaic Stadium (pictured in 1896, when the Games were held for the first time under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee). The stadium today is the last venue in Greece from where the Olympic flame handover ceremony to the host nation takes place. But in the 19th century, the idea of an Olympic flame was yet to be sparked.
The tradition of an Olympic fire was relit in Amsterdam in 1928 when the flame made its first appearance of the modern age at the top of the Marathon Tower, which overlooked the Olympic Stadium, the venue for the athletics events.
Los Angeles 1932
The flame reappeared four years later at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In this image taken during the opening ceremony, you can see the top of the tower on the gateway to the stadium, which would be lit.
Carl Diem (1882–1962)
While the Olympic flame had been successfully reintroduced, what we know today as the Olympic torch relay—which had no ancient precedent—was yet to be conceived. This tradition was created in 1936 by German sports administrator Carl Diem (pictured), who headed up the Organizing Committee of the Berlin Olympic Games, set to take place in the summer of that year.
Running with flame
Diem’s idea was to organize a buildup event for the Berlin Games. He drew inspiration from the relay races held during the Ancient Olympic Games when runners had to keep alight the flame in the torch they were clutching and pass it to their teammates for a successful handover.
Inaugural torch-lighting event
In 1936, it was also decided to return to Olympia in Greece for the inaugural torch-lighting event (pictured).
The first Olympic torch relay
A highly publicized event, the first Olympic torch relay saw the flame transported from Olympia to Berlin over 3,187 km (1,980 mi) by 3,331 runners in 12 days and 11 nights. Pictured is the first torchbearer, Greek athlete Konstantin Kondylis, leaving Olympia.
Pictured is the last of the torch relay runners entering Berlin’s Olympiastadion and about to ignite the Olympic flame. The 1936 Games were used by Adolf Hitler to promote his government and the Nazi ideals of racial supremacy and antisemitism. Most Jewish athletes were barred or prevented from participating.
1936 also saw the flame first flicker at the Winter Olympics, held in February at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. It was, however, ignited at the venue and not at Olympia. Pictured is an ice hockey match between the USA and Canada during the Games.