The History of the Olympic Flame

The flame for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 will be lit at a ceremony in Olympia in Greece on 24 October, the latest staging of an event that provides an enduring link between the ancient and modern Games.

An integral part of the countdown to the Olympic Games, the lighting of the Olympic flame at Olympia is a ceremony of great symbolic importance, one that binds the ancient and modern versions of the Games firmly together.

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However, it was some time after the advent of the Games of the modern era at Athens 1896 that the event returned to what was the site of the ancient Games. Indeed, it was not until Amsterdam 1928 that the flame even made its first appearance of the modern age, being lit for the occasion on a tower looking out over the Olympic Stadium, the venue for the athletics events. The flame appeared once more in Los Angeles four years later, this time coming into existence at the top of the gateway to the Olympic Stadium.

In the lead-up to Berlin 1936, however, it was decided to take the ceremony back to its roots in Olympia, where the flame has been lit for every Summer Games since then. That decision coincided with the creation of the Olympic Torch Relay – the brainchild of the university lecturer and sports theorist Carl Diem. The Secretary General of the Organising Committee of the Games of the XI Olympiad, Diem drew inspiration for his idea from the torch races of Ancient Greece.

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It is a decision that has since become enshrined in Rule 13 of the Olympic Charter, which states: “The Olympic flame is the flame which is kindled in Olympia under the authority of the IOC.”  

The responsibility for organising the ceremony itself has always lain with the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC), which also organises the subsequent transporting of the flame by runners to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, one of the venues for the 1896 Games.

As was the case in ancient times, and as continues to be the custom today, the Olympic flame for Berlin 1936 was lit with the aid of a parabolic mirror reflecting the sun’s rays, a time-honoured method that guarantees the purity of the flame.

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Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was present at that inaugural ceremony and wished the torchbearers the best of luck on their journey.

1936 was also the year when the flame first flickered at the Olympic Winter Games, held in February that year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was, however, lit at the site of the Games and not at Olympia, as was the case again at St Moritz 1948.

Famed as the cradle of slalom skiing and ski jumping, Morgedal in Norway provided the venue for the lighting of the flame for Oslo 1952, when the inaugural Olympic Winter Games Torch Relay was held.

The Norwegian village performed the honours again for Squaw Valley 1960, stepping in when the HOC was unable to organise a ceremony at Olympia due to time restrictions. On both occasions, the flame was lit in the hearth of the house of Sondre Norheim, a legendary figure of Norwegian skiing in the 19th century.

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Meanwhile, the flame for Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 was lit in Rome, on the steps of the Temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill. That ceremony did feature a symbolic link with the past, however, with a tripod being sent from Olympia to the Italian capital especially for the occasion.

By the time the Olympic Winter Games Innsbruck 1964 came around, Olympia had been installed as the sole venue for the lighting of the flame, a solemn duty that will be performed there again in preparation for PyeongChang 2018.

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