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The legacy of Nazi Games is still burning brightly

Published : Jul 26, 2016, 2:28 am IST
Updated : Jul 26, 2016, 2:28 am IST

The 2000 Sydney Olympics flame went under water at the Great Barrier Reef.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics flame went under water at the Great Barrier Reef.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics attained notoriety after Adolf Hitler and his friends tried to appropriate the sporting event to advance their supremacist ideology. However, not everything associated with the Games was abhorrent. For instance, the torch relay, which is a key Olympics tradition today, is a legacy of the Berlin Games.

An Olympic cauldron was lit in the main stadium at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. But it was only at Berlin that the practice of igniting a fire directly from the sun’s rays using a parabolic mirror at Olympia in Greece and carrying it in a torch to the main Games venue for the cauldron started. The idea was the brainchild of Carl Diem, Berlin Games’ secretary.

There was no torch relay in the ancient Olympics. But Diem’s proposal gained widespread acceptance within the Olympic community because it represented continuity of the Games from antiquity to modern times. And, a fire lit from the sun’s rays was considered pure and sacred.

In addition to spreading the message about the upcoming Olympics, the torch relay also fostered friendship along its route. The flame must be kept alive at all times during the relay. These days a gas cartridge is used to keep it going.

The identity of the final torch bearer who usually lights the cauldron in the main stadium during the opening ceremony is kept a secret. The fire is extinguished on the final day of the competitions to indicate that the Games have come to an end.

There is no fixed time to light the fire in front of the temple of Hera at Olympia; it’s done a few months before the Olympics. Women who act as priestesses of the ceremony wear costumes based on antiquity. If the sun doesn’t come out on the ceremonial day, a fire lit on the rehearsal day is used instead.

The Hellenic Olympic Committee is in charge of the Olympia event. It cedes control to the organising committee of the Olympic Games after the torch relay reaches the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The torch relay faced many hurdles in its inaugural year in 1936. Approaching Olympia itself became an arduous task and special roads had to be laid to reach the ancient site of the Games. It traversed on foot through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia, logging around 3,000 kilometres, to reach Germany.

The torch relay has evolved over the years with fascinating methods being used to transport the flame from Olympia to the Olympic venue. After Berlin, London (1948) and Moscow (1980) were the only Games to transport the torch exclusively by foot. The 1976 flame was transmitted from Athens to Ottawa by a satellite. A diver carried the 2000 Sydney Olympics flame under water at the Great Barrier Reef.