Carrying a Torch for the Olympics

Tim Koch counts down to Rio.

27 April marked 100 days until the start of the Olympic Regatta in Rio. It was also the day that Greek sculler Katerina (Aikaterini) Nikolaidou, (winner of the Women’s Lightweight Singles at the 2014 European Rowing Championships) was the last runner in the Greek part of the 2016 Torch Relay to Rio. The torch was formally handed over to Brazil at a ceremony at the venue of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Sports journalist and Olympic historian Philip Barker was there and was kind enough to send HTBS the two photographs below. See other pictures by Philip on his Twitter account, @pbarkersport, and find out more from his book, The Story of the Olympic Torch (2012).

Pic 2. At the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, the final Greek torch bearer, Katerina Nikolaidou, receives the flame from her countryman, the 1996 gymnastics champion, Ioannis Melisassanidis. Picture: Philip Barker.
At the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, the final Greek torch bearer, Katerina Nikolaidou, receives the flame from her countryman, the 1996 gymnastics champion, Ioannis Melisassanidis. Picture: Philip Barker.

The flame had been lit on 21 April in a ceremony in Olympia, the birthplace of the Games, when a parabolic mirror was used to produce a flame using the sun’s rays. The torch was then carried on a seven-day relay across Greece where 450 people in total ran with it, including Syrian refugee, Ibrahim al Hussein, who had claimed asylum in the country and who bore the flame in the name of all refugees.

Pic 3. Nikolaidou lights the cauldron in the centre of the Panathenaic Stadium. The flame was then handed over to representatives of Rio 2016. Picture: Philip Barker.
Nikolaidou lights the cauldron in the centre of the Panathenaic Stadium. The flame was then handed over to representatives of Rio 2016. Picture: Philip Barker.

After leaving Greece, the torch went onto Geneva for a ceremony at the United Nations and then to Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee. The Brazilian section of the relay began on 3 May in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, and will culminate at the opening ceremony in the Maracanã stadium, when the flame will be used to light the Olympic Cauldron.

Pic 4. The 2016 Olympic Torch. Picture: Rio 2016.
The 2016 Olympic Torch. Picture: Rio 2016.

The Olympic Torch Relay is a clever and effective idea. It appears to be part of the legacy of the ancient games; its slow progress to the host city marks the build-up to the great event; thousands of people, some ‘ordinary’, some ‘celebrities’, have the chance to carry the flame and they and perhaps their home towns are, for a short time, at the centre of a worldwide event.

Pic 5. Steve Redgrave carries the torch at Henley as part of the 2012 Relay. He was accompanied by young members of the three Henley rowing clubs.
Steve Redgrave carries the torch at Henley as part of the 2012 Relay. He was accompanied by young members of the three Henley rowing clubs.

These are the aspects of the Torch Relay that the International Olympic Committee would like the world to concentrate on. However, there are several parts of the event’s history that they would prefer were not mentioned.

Pic 6. The 1936 Berlin Olympics. Siegfried Eifrig, a tall, blond, blue eyed German sprinter, carried the Olympic flame into the centre of Berlin where he lit two urns that burned throughout the Games.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics. Siegfried Eifrig, a tall, blond, blue eyed German sprinter, carried the Olympic flame into the centre of Berlin where he lit two urns that burned throughout the Games.

Sadly, the Olympic Torch Relay has not been inherited from the Greeks of ancient times, it is in fact an invention of the all too recent Nazis. Few aspects of the 1936 Olympic Games better exemplify it as a National Socialist propaganda exercise than the ceremonies that they attached to the torch. Lighting it in Greece and carrying it 1,500 miles to Berlin reinforced the idea of a shared Aryan heritage between the ancient world and the new Thousand Year Reich, with the suggestion that it was some sort of natural progression.

Pic 7. Barry Larkin (sadly, not ‘Larrikin’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larrikin ) carries the ‘Olympic Torch’ in Sydney before the 1956 Games.
Barry Larkin (sadly, not ‘Larrikin’) carries the ‘Olympic Torch’ in Sydney before the 1956 Games.

I do not know if the self-important people who were in charge of the London 2012 torch relay were typical of those who do the job at every Games, but, if they were, their pomposity was truly pricked at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, an event that became known as ‘The Friendly Games’.

Barry Larkin and some other students at Sydney University decided to poke fun at the torch relay which they felt was being treated with too much reverence considering the tradition’s dubious Nazi origins. They made a fake torch using silver paint, a plumb pudding can and an old chair leg. Inside the can was a pair of kerosene soaked underpants. Cross-country champion Harry Dillon was scheduled to carry the flame into Sydney, where he was to present it to the mayor at the City Hall. However Larkin ran through the streets ahead of Dillon, got to Mayor Hills first and, amazingly, managed to stand the ‘torch’ before him unchallenged. Unprepared or perhaps just confused, Hills immediately made his speech to the assembled crowd as planned. Wisely perhaps, Larkin took this opportunity to disappear and it was some years before he revealed his identity.

Pic 8. Still with the 1956 Games, the final relay runner has a real torch – but by the time that he lit the Olympic cauldron, he probably wished that he had carried some burning underwear on a bit of broken furniture.
Still with the 1956 Games, the final relay runner has a real torch – but by the time that he lit the Olympic cauldron, he probably wished that he had carried some burning underwear on a bit of broken furniture.

When a real torch was finally carried into the Olympic Stadium in Melbourne by Australian track star Ron Clarke, it looked spectacular as it was fuelled with a mixture of aluminium and magnesium flakes – which burn very brightly. Unfortunately, they also burn at 650°C and Clarke was showered by the brilliant flakes as he ran along. The resulting injuries caused him to miss the rest of the opening ceremony. Film evidence of his Aussie stoicism is here from 15.38.

As thousands of people have taken part in Olympic Torch Relays, there are inevitably a few who, in retrospect, were not really upholders of the ‘Olympic Ideal’.

Picture 9. OJ Simpson, Los Angeles 1984. While Simpson was acquitted by a criminal court on charges of murder in 1995, in 2008 he was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment for armed robbery and kidnapping.
OJ Simpson, Los Angeles 1984. While Simpson was acquitted by a criminal court on charges of murder in 1995, in 2008 he was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment for armed robbery and kidnapping.
Pic 10. Lance Armstrong carries the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics torch. In 2012, a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded that the cyclist had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career and he received a lifetime ban and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
Lance Armstrong carries the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics torch. In 2012, a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded that the cyclist had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career and he received a lifetime ban and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
Pic 11. When the 2004 Relay reached New York, Donald Trump was one of those who carried the Olympic Flame, the symbol of an event which celebrates internationalism and multiculturalism. Perhaps Trump was actually thinking of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics when 523 of the 630 competitors were American?
When the 2004 Relay reached New York, Donald Trump was one of those who carried the Olympic Flame, the symbol of an event which celebrates internationalism and multiculturalism. Perhaps Trump was actually thinking of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics when 523 of the 630 competitors were American?

This article originally appeared at https://heartheboatsing.com/2016/05/06/carrying-a-torch-for-the-olympics/

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